Are Unconscious Biases Holding You Back?

Unconscious bias seems to be the new buzz phrase. As with many trendy new concepts, it runs the risk of being trivialized. I invite you to refrain from dismissing the power of unconscious bias. It’s worth digging deeper to uncover and bring to the light the potentially profound undermining impact it can have on our lives as women.  We often hear about gender bias and usually assume it means bias imposed by men against women. But what about women’s own internal biases? It’s these insidious biases against our own gender that perhaps do the most damage.

Why would I address this issue in an article about negotiation? Well, most women tend to shy away from negotiation, believing they’re not effective, or alternatively overcompensate, believing they need to bring masculine energy to succeed. Neither are true. In developing my Art of Feminine Negotiation programs I was determined to delve into the why for this phenomenon. Turned out these unconscious biases were one of the key things holding women back. They undercut our performance, affect the choices we make, and limit our opportunities. So, isn’t it time we address the monster under the bed head on and take its power away? At the very least, it’s worth taking a look at.

I           Undercutting Our Own Performance

When we’re primed based on our gender we perform worse. What do I mean by that? In a study of a group of young women taking SAT tests, where half the control group were asked to identify their gender – just identify whether they’re male or female – that half performed worse than the half who didn’t have to identify gender. In fact, in a Harvard study of Asian-American students, the young women performed better when asked to identify their ethnicity but worse when they had to identify their gender. Similarly, a U.S. study of AP calculus students showed that young women asked to identify their gender before the test performed worse than those asked the question after. This result held true even when the priming was subconscious. In another Harvard study, when ‘feminine’ words (like lipstick, pink or doll), were subliminally flashed unbeknownst to the participants, those primed with the feminine words performed worse than those primed with neutral words.

Let’s think about that for a moment. If the mere idea of identifying as a woman somehow makes us under-perform and not achieve our actual potential or capabilities, what does that say about the limiting beliefs girls have internalized about our gender? Consider the destructive power of these beliefs.

II          Undercutting Our Own Sense of What We Think We Want

It goes even further. Not only is our performance negatively impacted, but some studies support that our very ideas about what we’re interested in can be manipulated by gender priming. For example, in a joint Toronto and Boston psychology study, female undergraduate students who were subliminally flashed images of women not visible to the naked eye, expressed a preference for arts over math whereas those who had been primed with male images did not.

III         Undercutting Our Opportunities

These unconscious biases also limit our opportunities in the world. Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the workforce. It was long believed that women did not secure certain positions or advance due to lesser skills. Allegations of bias were met with resistance and denial (from both men and women). Now, however, studies routinely confirm that not only do unconscious gender biases exist, but they’ve played a significant role in holding women back for many years.

In one study, for example, participants were asked to choose the most qualified candidate for a position as police chief. Unbeknownst to them, however, they were given two resumes identical in every respect but for name. One bore a man’s name, the other a woman’s. In significant numbers, participants (both men and women) consistently chose the male for the position notwithstanding identical resumes to choose from.

Likewise, for many years, most major symphonies were overwhelmingly comprised of male musicians. Suggestions of gender bias in the selection process, were rebuffed with arguments about judging by professionals based on objective, identifiable criteria. And yet, when blind auditions were finally run (i.e. the judges could not see the candidates auditioning, but could only hear them) more women were selected.

Surprised? It’s not really surprising that these unconscious biases exist and have had profound impact on women throughout the years and continue to do so. Let’s face it. It wasn’t that long ago that women didn’t have the right to vote, or own property. Heck, in some jurisdictions it’s recent history that we were even recognized as persons in the eyes of the law. And if we go back further, in the scheme of things, it’s not so long ago that powerful women were burned as witches at the stake. So perhaps it’s no wonder that you may have been conditioned to hesitate to step into the fullness of your power. The message that you will be cut down if you do has perhaps been passed down generation to generation through whispered warnings absorbed through osmosis as they travelled along our mother’s umbilical cord, tying us to our mother and all the mothers before her.

Again, don’t panic. Awareness is the key. Each layer we peel back gets you one step closer to stepping into your power as a feminine negotiator. It’s important that we face it though. Don’t turn away or pretend it doesn’t exist. Look the monster in the face and name it. Hold up a mirror and face it in yourself. Stare it down. Consider this a primary negotiation exercise. Negotiate with yourself to deal with your unconscious bias. Acknowledge the power it’s held. Commit to yourself to fight against it, to identify it when it creeps in and to stomp it down – both as it impacts on you and your decisions vis-à-vis yourself and as against other women.

It starts with self-reflection and awareness. Given that both men and women suffer from these unconscious biases, it stands to reason that we’ve under performed at some points in our lives, that we’ve made decisions that were informed by internal biases we weren’t even aware were at play, that we’ve judged other women more harshly based on these same biases. When I thought about these studies, it made me wonder, how many times have I held myself back or pursued a path that may not have been my heart’s desire without being aware of it.

How about you? Can you think of times when maybe you under performed and you weren’t sure why, or maybe you stopped yourself from asking for more money, or you let a man take your idea, or held your tongue until you thought it might bleed, or maybe just doubted yourself and held back from going for something big? What if today, you made a commitment to face down the monster of unconscious gender bias, to release those conditioned inhibitions and let your inner goddess and natural negotiator shine bright.


gender bias, gender priming, inner goddess, natural negotiator, powerful women, unconscious biases, Undercutting Opportunities, women’s internal biases

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