how unconscious bias impacts women in the workplace

According to researchers, the average human brain can unconsciously process up to 11 million pieces of information per second. While collecting this data is vital for proper brain functioning and allows you to plan and execute actions, it also works to form unconscious biases that are then stored in the brain.


what are unconscious biases?

Biases are described as positive or negative beliefs, attitudes and prejudices one holds against a group of people based on misinformation, experiences and learned stereotypes. 

In many cases, these prejudices lead to unfair treatment, whether positive or negative, of the people within these groups. In the case of unconscious bias, people are typically unaware that they hold these beliefs and attitudes. Nonetheless, unconscious bias can still lead to unfair treatment of a particular group of people. 

Since individuals themselves are often unaware of this type of bias, it can be difficult to spot in the workplace. However, there's ample evidence to show that unconscious bias and unfair treatment are commonly experienced in the workplace. 

In fact, according to a recent survey we conducted of 1,000 Canadian working women, two-thirds of these women have either been a victim of or have witnessed some form of unfair treatment by coworkers or managers.

There is still much work to be done to remove unfair treatment caused by unconscious biases from the workplace. Employers and employees must start by better understanding how these biases impact workers and how to recognize this unfair treatment in the workplace. 

the impact of unconscious bias on women in the workplace

Unconscious biases in the workplace may be impacting workers more than employers realize. As mentioned above, two-thirds of employed Canadian women have seen or experienced unfair treatment in the workplace. 

Of these women, one in five states that they have personally experienced unfair treatment by coworkers and management. Even more alarming, however, is the fact that nearly one in four women were actual victims of microaggressions in the workplace.

That's not all. According to our survey, 33% of Canadian working women recognize systematic biases in the workplace. These unconscious biases undoubtedly contribute to other challenges women perceive in the workplace. For example:

  • 32% of Canadian working women have experienced or seen a coworker receiving less pay for the same role
  • 16% of Canadian working women have experienced a lack of growth compared to others working in the same role
  • 14% of Canadian working women have not received flexibility to deal with parenting issues

With one half of the working women we surveyed admitting that they've personally experienced some form of unfair treatment due to unconscious biases, employers must start communicating with their workers to better understand these issues. 

After all, if employers hope to provide women the support they need to grow within the organization, they must first understand the specific challenges and biases that female workers face. 

are workplace policies helping?

The good news is that 7 out of 10 women agree that advancement opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds are available. This high percentage shows that employers are bringing awareness to the problem of unconscious bias in the workplace and setting policies to build equality throughout the company. 

Fortunately, some policies may be showing real results. For example, two-thirds of the women surveyed feel that their unique contributions to the company are recognized by their peers, and they feel safe to be authentic in the workplace. 

Additionally, 62% of Canadian working women believe that their employer provides a safe space to express concerns regarding topics that impact their lives, such as parenting, discrimination and mental health. 

While these signs indicate that change is taking place, other survey results show that there's still plenty of work to do towards overcoming unconscious biases in the workplace. For example, despite nearly 70% of working women in Canada believing that there are equal advancement opportunities available for people of diverse backgrounds and varying identities, 47% admit that they've been passed over for a promotion they wanted. 

Unfortunately, creating policies isn't going to be enough to overcome decades of unfair treatment. The fact that nearly half of the women we surveyed reveal that they've been passed over for promotions they requested shows that adherence to these policies may be another issue altogether. 

While 10% of these women admit that they weren't as qualified as the person who received the promotion, another 10% believe they weren't promoted due to favoritism. In comparison, 8% feel nepotism and discrimination played a role.

It's clear that employers must do more than just set policies to curb biases in the workplace. Instead, they must go one step further to ensure these policies are being adhered to at all levels within the organization. Only when meaningful policies are set in combination with accountability can employers hope to see real change in the workplace.

extraordinary bias towards women of colour

There's a long history of discrimination against women of colour, both in and out of the workplace. While most employers are quick to stop blatant discrimination against workers, the unfair treatment caused by unconscious biases is more difficult to detect and, therefore, harder to stop. 

This factor doesn't mean that employers shouldn't do their part to curb any unfair treatment in the workplace, whether done consciously or unconsciously. It does mean, however, that employers must fully understand the extraordinary challenges women of colour face in the workplace. 

Our survey results show that women of colour definitely feel this unfair treatment :

  • 65% of the women of colour we surveyed have been personally affected by biases and unfair treatment in the workplace
  • 6 in 10 women of colour report that they have been passed over for a promotion they wanted, compared to just 4 in 10 women not of colour
  • over half of the women of colour (58%) surveyed feel a sense of belonging in the workplace, compared to 67% of their counterparts. 
  • only 62% of women of colour feel safe to be their authentic selves at work, compared to 71% of women not of colour. 

Women of colour are also less likely to believe that equal opportunities exist for people of diverse backgrounds than women not of colour, and they are less likely to believe that their peers recognize them for the contributions they bring to the company. 

Understanding how unconscious biases profoundly affect women of colour's ability to feel safe, valued and recognized in the workplace can help employers build policies that help women overcome these challenges and minimize unfair biases at work. 

Check out our other articles on this topic: to look beyond biases or mitigate unconscious biases at work to promote female leadership:

looking for more information on gender equality at work?

Check out the Empowering Women section of our website for additional resources pertaining to women in the workplace.

women in the workplace