What is implicit bias?
Implicit bias refers to unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that affect our actions and decisions for or against a particular person or group. We may explicitly endorse certain values, such as inclusivity, but may hold an unconscious bias that doesn’t align with these values. A common example of implicit bias is favouring or being more receptive to familiar-sounding names than those from other cultural groups. Implicit bias doesn’t mean that inclusivity is not one of our values. It means that we are not aware of how our own implicit bias can impact our actions and decisions.
At their core, microaggressions can feel like a subtle form of discrimination. Yet they are usually indirect and unintentional and therefore unlikely to meet the criteria for discrimination under human rights legislation. It’s our responsibility to learn more about microaggressions to help improve civility and respect for everyone.
Microaggressions are often based on differences in skin colour, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation. Implicit bias can occur without face-to-face interaction. For example, the choice of images or written language can show bias. Microaggressions are more likely to occur through passive remarks and actions.
It’s completely possible that we could unintentionally engage in microaggressions. This is especially true when we’re unaware of our own implicit biases. We may think our comments or actions are harmless when in fact they can have a significant negative impact on others.
Implicit bias stems from the various stereotypes that lead to prejudice, discrimination and/or negative attitudes. The following is a list of common “isms” and phobias:
- Ableism - Directed at people who may exhibit or seem to show signs of mental or physical disabilities
- Ageism - Based on age
- Classism - Based on socio-economic status
- Colourism - Based on a person’s skin tone or complexion
- Cronyism and nepotism - Based on favoring those who are family or friends
- Elitism - Based on status or level of education
- Ethnocentrism - Based on belief that your culture is superior
- Homophobia - Targets those who are attracted to members of their own gender
- Racism - Based on a person’s race or cultural identity
- Religious prejudice - Based on a person’s system of beliefs, practices and worship
- Sexism - Focused on a person’s gender
- Sizeism and fatphobia - Based on a person’s weight and outwards appearance
- Transphobia - Targets transsexual or transgender people
- Xenophobia - Focuses on people from other countries
Implicit curiosity is one way to address implicit bias. People have a responsibility to educate themselves on the experiences of others so they conduct themselves respectfully in the workplace and the world.
There’s lots of research in the social psychology sphere about bias and discrimination. Simply put, we form prejudiced opinions regardless of our intelligence or education – but curiosity may help us make wiser judgments.
Curiosity has long been recognized as a common, innate human characteristic, one that compels us to ask questions (both implicitly and explicitly), seek knowledge, gain understanding and make appropriate decisions1.
Ask questions respectfully about each person’s preferences and opinions. Most people are happy to share information with those who genuinely want to know more. Do not assume that any one person can speak for an entire group. For example, do not ask how people “like you” feel or think. Instead focus on their personal perspective.
Examples of microaggressions
Below are examples of what might be perceived as a microaggression and potential solutions. Consider how each approach may feel like discrimination or cause someone to feel uncomfortable. Suggestions are provided about what you could do or say instead to get the intended message across with less likelihood of offending.
- Asking if a person’s hair is real and/or touching it without permission
- What to do instead: “Your hair looks nice,” or “I like what you did with your hair”. Never touch someone’s hair without permission.
- Asking, “Where are you really from?” after someone has told you where they’re from
- What to do instead: Take them at their word.
- Assuming you know a person’s language or their racial identity based on their appearance
- What to do instead: Ask, “Do you speak any other languages?” or say nothing
- Assuming gender expression, mis-gendering (even if unintentional) or stating, “You don’t look trans.”
- What to do instead: Ask for the person’s preferred pronouns and honour them at all times.
- Mispronouncing a person’s name or using a nickname (unless agreed on)
- What to do instead: Ask the person what they like to be called.
- Making comments on someone’s perceived mood. For example, “He’s acting bipolar,” or “She must be on her period.”
- What to do instead: Be sympathetic or say nothing.
- Assuming or commenting on someone’s sexual preference or family structure
- What to do instead: Use gender-neutral terms like “partner” or “spouse”
Everyone carries bias. We each have a responsibility to be aware of when and why this might occur.
Intersectionality focuses on the overlap of various social identities one person may hold. This can include skin colour, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and class.
Different combinations may increase or decrease the likelihood that you will experience systemic oppression and discrimination.
For example, you may consider a white male to be in the majority in your workplace, but if a white male is also gay, the intersection of his sexual orientation may increase the likelihood that he will face discrimination.
Gauging your “intersectionality” can predict which groups you may hold unconscious bias towards. Intersections are the social groups that make up your identity. They are often the groups you surround yourself with. This exercise can help reveal areas to improve and explore.
What intersections do you have?
- Ability - Such as physically disabled, mentally disabled, chronic pain
- Age - Such as under 10, 20 – 30, 60 – 80
- Body type - Such as average, athletic, obese
- Culture - Such as Latinx, Indigenous, Black
- Education level - Such as no formal education, high school, PhD
- Ethnicity - Such as Italian, South African, East Asian
- Family status - Such as married, single parent, widowed
- Gender - Such as non-binary, trans, male/female
- Income level - Such as low, middle, high
- Job role - Such as management, union rep, frontline
- Nationality - Such as Japanese, British, Mexican
Consider these questions:
- In what ways could your workplace be more inclusive of people from other social groups? Example: Review HR policy and internal evaluation for diversity and inclusion.
- Complete the following phrases. In each case you’re describing the first image that comes to your mind. Evaluate your responses to try and establish some of your implicit biases.
- When I picture a financial sector CEO, I first imagine a(n)…(age) (race) (gender) (sexual orientation).
- You’re invited to someone’s family dinner. What was the structure of the family you imagined?
- Someone’s arrested for a violent crime. What do they look like?
- Your friend casually says a slur in conversation. What did they say?
- The hero in the story is probably a…(race) (gender) (sexual orientation).
Addressing bias and microaggressions
If you witness bias or a microaggression in the workplace:
- Identify: State to those involved what you saw or heard. Do this respectfully and with the intention to objectively reflect what you witnessed rather than adding in your opinion about the intent.
For example, if you heard “where are you really from?” you might say, “they just told you.”
- Reframe the narrative: Share why you think the exchange may be hurtful to some people. This is an opportunity for respectful dialogue! Give people the benefit of the doubt. They may not be aware of their own biases and the person on the other end may not have been offended in the least. When you approach this as a conversation instead of an accusation, people are much less likely to become defensive. In this example, you might ask, “Why don’t you believe their first response?”
- Educate: The better everyone understands the issues, the more they can avoid bias. Ask questions, especially of those who may experience implicit bias. Seek to understand their experiences. Pursue professional development opportunities that focus on inclusion. This could be done privately with the person who spoke up or as a general education opportunity with an entire team without singling anyone out.
- Be open to new, deeper ways of offering support: As you gain greater understanding, leverage that into providing supports that consider the unique challenges individuals with differences, including but not limited to race, class, or gender, often face. In addition to what’s already been discussed, this may require an understanding of the impact of past trauma related to discrimination, persecution or violence. Indigenous teachings for leaders and Leader support for newcomers include strategies that may be helpful.
Implicit bias workshop
A self−reflection workshop that explores the attitudes and stereotypes that affect our actions, decisions and unconscious understanding towards or against a particular person or people group.
*Take the “I Act On Pledge” of the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion
*Check out Project Implicit
This content was adapted from the work of Mardi Daley, B.A Mardi is a Young Adult Peer Specialist, advocate and recent founder of the Lived Experience Lab. Mardi specializes in youth engagement and best practices for the ethical engagement of people with lived experience in the workplace.
- Understanding implicit bias. The Kirwan Institute provides information and resources to learn more about implicit bias.
- Microaggression – Definition
- Team activity — Microaggressions. A team-building activity to understand and avoid microaggressions.
- Intersectionality - Definition
- Team activity — Intersectionality. Intersectionality focuses on the overlap of various social identities one person may hold. This activity can help reveal areas where we may hold unconscious bias towards particular groups.
Golman & Loewenstein, 2015; Kidd & Hayden, 2015; Noordewier & Dijk, 2017 as cited in Change through Curiosity in the Insight Approach to Conflict, by Megan Price (2017).