Unconscious Bias: Resources & Publications

The Royal Society

This short briefing is meant to alert you to potential difficulties around unconscious bias and prompt you to consciously revisit them before making a decision. Think of them as the safety instructions that you are given every time you are on an airplane. You may think you know them already, but it is good to rehearse them just in case. Download the RS Unconscious Bias Briefing (PDF, 70 KB).

Advance HE Online Unconscious Bias Resource

Implicit or unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realising. Our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. We may not even be aware of these views and opinions, or be aware of their full impact and implications.

A study of science faculties in higher education institutions (Moss-Racusin et al 2012) asked staff to review a number of applications. The applications reviewed were identical, apart from the gender of the name of the applicant.

Science faculties were more likely to:

  • rate male candidates as better qualified than female candidates
  • want to hire the male candidates rather than the female candidates
  • give the male candidate a higher starting salary than the female candidate
  • be willing to invest more in the development of the male candidate than the female candidate

Here, unconscious bias impacts not only on the recruitment decision, but the salary of the individual and the amount of development that is invested in their ongoing progression. 

Harvard Implicit Association Tests

Psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virgina and the University of Washington have created a range of Implicit Association Tests (IATs), to measure unconscious bias. The tests investigate thoughts and feelings that exist outside of our conscious awareness and control.


Unconscious bias can influence decisions in recruitment, promotion and performance management. It could be discriminatory when the unconscious bias relates to a protected characteristic.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias occurs when people favour others who look like them and/or share their values. For example a person may be drawn to someone with a similar educational background, from the same area, or who is the same colour or ethnicity as them.

A manager who wasn't successful at school may listen to, or be supportive of, an employee who left school without qualifications because, subconsciously, they are reminded of their younger self. The same can be true of a manager who is educated to degree level, favouring employees who have also been to university. This is known as affinity bias, because they feel an affinity with the person as they have similar life experiences.

Another form of unconscious bias is known as the halo effect. This is where a positive trait is transferred onto a person without anything really being known about that person. For example those who dress conservatively are often seen as more capable in an office environment, based purely on their attire.

Behaviour which reinforces the bias is noticed whilst behaviour which does not is ignored. This is how decisions based on unconscious bias are justified.

Everyone has unconscious biases. The brain receives information all the time from our own experiences and what we read, hear or see in the media and from others. The brain uses shortcuts to speed up decision making and unconscious bias is a by-product. There are times when this sort of quick decision making is useful, for example if faced with a dangerous situation, however it is not a good way to make decisions when dealing with recruiting or promoting staff.

Key points

  • It's natural.
  • It's unintended.
  • It can affect decisions.
  • It can be mitigated.

Unconscious bias at work can influence decisions in recruitment, promotion, staff development and recognition and can lead to a less diverse workforce. Employers can overlook talented workers and instead favour those who share their own characteristics or views. 

Where unconscious bias is against a protected characteristic, it can be discriminatory. For example if during a recruitment process an employer ignores the skills and experience of a candidate who is a different race than them and appoints another candidate who is the same race, this could be discriminatory. 

Conscious thoughts are controlled and well reasoned. Unconscious thoughts can be based on stereotypes and prejudices that we may not even realise we have. Stereotypes surrounding tattoos may subconsciously suggest a person is unlikely to conform and follow rules. Stereotypes surrounding mothers may lead to unconscious bias against women who apply for a role which involves regular travel away from home.

Stress or tiredness may increase the likelihood of decisions based on unconscious bias.

How to overcome unconscious bias

  • Be aware of unconscious bias.
  • Don't rush decisions rather take your time and consider issues properly.
  • Justify decisions by evidence and record the reasons for your decisions, for example during a recruitment exercise.
  • Try to work with a wider range of people and get to know them as individuals. This could include working with different teams or colleagues based in a different location.
  • Focus on the positive behaviour of people and not negative stereotypes.
  • Employers should implement policies and procedures which limit the influence of individual characteristics and preferences.

Media: Waking up to unconscious bias

"Convincing scientists that there is a real problem with bias against women has been challenging. Rather than a pattern of women simply choosing to leave, research has revealed how academics (of both genders) hinder women’s progress: in blind studies, CVs with female names were found to be ranked lower by appointing scientists than identical CVs with male names.  Women are less likely to be invited to speak at conferences than men, and both female and male academics have been found to have implicit bias in this regard, too.

The good news is that training in implicit bias does improve attitudes towards women in science, and many universities have introduced it to staff recruitment and management programmes." 

Micro-Inequities: How to overcome workplace implicit bias

In 1973 Mary Rowe, while working for the President and Chancellor at MIT, coined the notion of micro-inequities, which she defined as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’"  Examples of micro-inequities include:

  • checking emails or texting during a face-to-face conversation
  • consistently mispronouncing a person's name
  • interrupting a person mid-sentence
  • making eye-contact only with males while talking to a group containing both males and females
  • taking more questions from men than women
  • confusing a person of a certain ethnicity with another person of the same ethnicity
  • rolling your eyes
  • sighing loudly
  • raising your voice, even though the other person has no difficulties hearing you
  • mentioning the achievements of some people at a meeting but not others whose achievements are equally relevant
  • consistently ignoring a person's emails for no good reason
  • only reading half of a person's email and then asking the person about the content later
  • making jokes aimed at certain minority groups
  • being completely unpredictable in your grading of certain people's term papers
  • issuing invitations that are uncomfortable for certain groups (“Please feel free to bring your wife”)

Rowe noted that micro-inequities often had serious cumulative, harmful effects, resulting in hostile work environments and continued minority discrimination in public and private workplaces and organizations. What makes micro-inequities particularly problematic is that they consist in micro-messages that are hard to recognize for victims, bystanders and perpetrators alike. When victims of micro-inequities do recognize the micro-messages, Rowe argues, it is exceedingly hard to explain to others why these small behaviours can be a huge problem. 

Micro-aggressions: EHRC guidance

Equality & Human Rights Commission for Britain (Oct 2019):

‘Microagressions’ is not a legal term and such behaviour will not necessarily amount to harassment under the Equality Act 2010. This will depend on the facts of each case. As the definition of microaggressions suggests, the perpetrator of the microagression may not have any harassing intent. Therefore, whether their behaviour amounts to harassment is likely to depend on the effect it had on the victim.

However, microagressions that do not meet the Equality Act 2010 definition of harassment could lead to behaviour which does meet the definition through repetition or escalation of the behaviour.

Our evidence refers to the subtle nature of much of the behaviour experienced as harassing. A lot of the evidence related to less obvious everyday forms of racism. These more nuanced forms include behaviours that are commonly referred to as ‘microaggressions’.

Micro-aggressions: Advance HE guidance

A microaggression is a term used for brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group. - Professor Chester. M. Pierce. 

Apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognised by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different’. - Mary Rowe.  

Micro incivilities are the kinds of daily commonplace behaviours or aspects of an environment which signal, wittingly or unwittingly, to members of out-groups that they do not belong and are not welcome’. - Pearn Kandola ‘Racism at Work’.