Conchita: overcoming unconscious bias
Unconscious bias lurks in us all

Unconscious bias lurks in us all

I haven’t watched the Eurovision song contest in living memory, but this year I was invited to a Eurovision party. Not wanting to be a party-pooper, I entered into the spirit of the occasion.  The winner was  a bearded male drag artist named Thomas Neuwirth, now known by his alter ego’s name Conchita. I have a confession. I was horrified to find myself struggling with unconscious bias which I hadn’t even realised was there.

Hmmm…Why shouldn’t a woman have a beard or a man wear a dress? Does that affect his/her voice? No not at all.

What struck me about the whole affair was the entire world seemed to have overcome its own collective unconscious bias (apart from Putin and Balkan church leaders) to embrace him/her. I needed to as well.

Hidden prejudices

Hidden prejudice and biases are surprisingly influential in determining all the decisions we make, affecting our feelings, actions, opinions and reactions. We are all susceptible to them and have to be aware of how knee-jerk, mindless stereotyping creeps into all aspects of our lives and impact the way we interact with others and make judgements we are barely aware of. We all need to take care to respond to situations and people in a neutral way. Even the smallest throw away comment can perpetuate stereotyping and influence the thinking and behaviour of those around us.

With most organisations being male dominated at senior levels, male values generally prevail to mould the corporate culture.  Both men and women are guilty of unconscious bias in equal measure, but within companies it leads to a copy/paste selection and promotion process, where  P.L.U. (People Like Us) with similar profiles to the senior men,  are attracted, welcomed, groomed and advanced to the top.

In male dominated cultures P.L.U. syndrome kicks in with copy/paste selection and promotion processes

Women with children (or even without) are seen as potential flight risks and unreliable, while men with children are perceived to be solid and dependable.

It is assumed that women with children are not ambitious or geographically mobile.

Soft skills are allocated a lower value as leadership traits and a concentration of women in the soft,  “pink” functions of H.R. and P.R. perpetuates the culture where men are perceived to be better in tougher roles, usually associated with P & L responsibility key to the growth or sustainability of the business.

Women are relegated to “caring” and support roles.

And so it goes on….

Only this weekend Carolina a coaching client bemoaned her upbringing “I was raised to be polite, quiet and gentle because that’s how girls are supposed to be. Now when I need to speak up in my job it can be a struggle.  When I do, if I am assertive I am labelled as “pushy” and a bitch“.

At a recent interview a candidate singled out the woman in the room to ask for a glass of water, assuming she was a secretary. She was the Business Unit head. The men were her reports.

A man who misses a meeting to look after his children is perceived as cute and an involved parent. A woman isn’t getting her priorities right.

Women sales directors often tell me that if they take a male colleague on a pitch, clients will make eye contact and begin by directing questions to the man.

Megan an automotive design engineer had trouble persuading a client that she was the senior engineer working on the project. Women doctors often complain about being mistaken for nurses.

The  male Caucasian boss of a quadri- lingual African lawyer taking an Executive MBA expresses surprise at her ability to handle the course content.  “Is  it because I’m a woman, or black, or both she asked?”  Perhaps he’s just rude.

People thanked a woman for baking brownies for a departmental pot luck supper. The chef was her male colleague.

And so it goes on.

When we become aware of the small ways we all contribute to the perpetuation of these biases, only then will the chances of inclusion be increased.

What unconscious biases lurk within you? If you would like  to test the unconscious biases you might harbour please take the Implicit Association Tests (IATs) designed by Project Implicit ( It reveals ways in which we associate things that we may not have considered.

This was kindly brought to my attention by Kerwyn Hodge, Legal Benefits Consultant based in New York. An eye opener!




3Plus, Communication, Leadership
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Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.


  • Kerwyn Hodge says:

    I think we all have biases, whether conscious or unconscious. I also think it’s impossible to eliminate them in all situations. What we can strive to do is prevent them from influencing unethical actions. Let me give an example that aligns with Conchita’s circumstances: If a person, because of their personally held beliefs, feels that homosexuality and transgenderism is wrong, they have a bias. However, because they believe that such actions are wrong does NOT mean they must automatically consider the person engaging in those acts to be evil and unworthy of consideration. In this example, its impossible to remove the bias. However, it’s completely possible to prevent the bias from causing them to evaluate others unfairly simply because those people fall into the biased category. For organizations, appreciating that such biases exist means devising evaluation processes that rely more heavily on performance metrics and less on personal estimation. This way the persons most qualified for open positions receive due consideration.

    • Kerwyn – I agree completely about the recognition of unconscious bias and assessing neutrally – but once we get into the use of “wrong” we are already in blurred territory. This requires quite sophisticated insight which is perhaps for a whole other discussion.

      • Kerwyn Hodge says:

        That’s true, Dorothy. When we start discussing “right” and “wrong,” we’ve entered either legal or moral territory. The former is governed by the laws of the land, and these change and adapt constantly. However, even given those changes, they apply to a broad spectrum of people living in a given geographic area. The latter is shaped by religious, social, even economic criteria, and often vary greatly from person-to-person (even among those who profess the same religious faith or come from the same ethnic group or social strata). All (especially the latter) tend to create biases. I imagine, however, that the secret lies less in defining all those different factors as in creating a framework that allows them to exist yet still filters them out when making assessments of individuals.

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