Tackling discrimination: the ‘unconscious bias’ made conscious – what next?

In diversity and equality work, the term ‘unconscious bias’ is used to draw attention to the fact that people can discriminate against others without knowing they do. Our tendencies to treat or judge people unfairly are the result of us being human, as explained in this video by The Royal Society (link opens a new web page).

The fact that people are unaware of their own negative biases, and therefore unintentionally create obstacles for others (and keep doing so, as described in my previous blog post), may explain why social equality progresses so slowly. Not being aware of one’s own biased behaviour can, of course, also be quite convenient – minimising the need for change.


Researchers from traditionally under-represented groups can experience career progression barriers. For people in charge it can be convenient not to acknowledge these. In this cartoon, Patricia Cornflake can progress, bringing her elephant (‘in the room’), but what about the obstacles?

Margriet van Heesch, a researcher of ‘intersex’ histories, found that some women with XY chromosomes she interviewed had, over time, ‘missed’ important clues that could have led to them knowing about their Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) much sooner than they did. Van Heesch concludes there’s ‘agency in unknowing’ (2009, p. 142), in this case, ‘resisting a medical knowledge regime’. Sometimes, not knowing can be the same as not (yet) wanting to know.


In this Vimeo documentary (25 minutes), four women speak about living with AIS. Image source: NNID

It is probably overoptimistic to expect that people would act upon new knowledge that has the potential to change their lives, perspectives, beliefs, opportunities and benefits. Under a lot of circumstances, people are much more likely to avoid, repress, ignore and misinterpret what they don’t like hearing, for as long as they can.

There is no harm in using the concept of ‘unconscious bias’ to tackle discrimination, but I wouldn’t expect miracles any time soon. There are so many different human responses to learning about ‘unconscious biases’, and changing one’s behaviour is perhaps not the most logical step.

This is one of the hardest walls one can hit as an equality and diversity practitioner (to use Ahmed’s, 2012, metaphor). Unfortunately, such walls are very common, and perhaps not so unconsciously built as the powers that be would like us to think.

Further reading:

Ahmed, S. (2012) On Being Included, Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Finnigan, T. and Richards, A. (2016) Retention and attainment in the disciplines: Art and Design. York: Higher Education Academy.

Heesch, M. van (2009) ‘Do I Have XY Chromosomes?’, in Holmes, Morgan (ed.). Surrey: Ashgate, pp. 123–145.

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