The Curse of Unconscious Bias

This came up in conversation the other day when I was doing some training about respect and creating a positive culture in the workplace. However I think it’s relevant to the everyday and specifically to the issue of gender disparity. The topic I’m speaking about is unconscious bias.

So what is it exactly?


Our brains work kind of like factories. We have inputs from things like family, work, friends, the media etc, and as they are consumed by us, our brain interprets them into certain outputs which can be our behaviours, beliefs, biases and unconscious biases. This is a very large oversimplification but you get the idea.

The danger with an unconscious bias, as apposed to a conscious one, is firstly that is has been conditioned into you. It’s what you’ve seen, the behaviours you’ve picked up on, that now determine how you feel about a certain subject, and you don’t even know that its happened! A conscious bias has more to do with choice and hopefully with the right persuasion can be changed.

An unconscious bias can also be changed but it takes a lot longer and requires more than just talking it out with that person. The society we live in needs something to shift which can take years, decades even, before you start to see the impact.

It’s the societal impacts of unconscious bias that we are beginning to see come through in things like the gender disparity within the film industry. Now we’ve seen the comments, heard the horror stories (fyi I wrote a blog post about it here). We know that genuine sexism exists in the film industry (probably more conscious bias there). But what is probably hindering most female filmmakers is unconscious bias. Because I’m sure whilst the evidence is clear that it happens for men, it probably happens in women too.

One way to shift the unconscious bias against women is to start shifting what people are receiving in their inputs. Clearly not enough publicity is spreading the success of woman directors, not enough articles are hitting the front of newspapers, not enough women are being spotlighted in powerful roles, not enough women are holding Oscars high above their heads giving speeches and getting the accolades they deserve. We have began to see a shift, especially this year, in terms of the amount of female lead films at festivals, even a few esteemed awards have been taken out by women.

The shift is starting, but its up to each and every one of us to try and make the shift within ourselves in order to shake any of those unconscious biases that may be hindering the progress of an equal society. Just start by watching a film made by a woman, consciously looking for the intricacies that make it different from one directed by a man.

I am hopeful that just in making people aware to the bias that exists, making people be on the lookout for it and pick themselves up on it, we can create a society and a worldwide culture where gender parity does exist.

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