News — July 20, 2018

A Tale of Unconscious Gender Bias

By Suzi Chen (PhD), 2018 JCI Partnership Committee Chairperson

Most people believe themselves to be fair and good decision makers. Many of us would be offended if we were told that we are biased or even‚at times—prejudiced. So, how fair are we? And how true is it when we claim we are not biased?

What if I told you, statistically speaking, people with Chinese names send in 68% more CVs in order to land a job interview compared to people with Anglo-Saxon names1. According to a 2016 Whitepaper by UN Women2, having a male name gives you a better chance when it comes to CV evaluation, improving their chances of getting a job interview. Being a woman of Chinese descent myself, these statistics show I have a less promising career path compared to my white male counterparts. Fortunately, am my own boss and I run my own company, so these statistics don’t affect me directly, but this is a reality for many women of color in the workforce.


Why do men get more job interviews than women? Why do people of Chinese descent have to send in more CVs?

The truth is, as much as we would like to believe it otherwise, we don't always have control of how our brain functions. Our brains have a mind of their own (no pun intended).

Studies by Professor Wilson from University of Virginia have shown that at any given second, our brain is bombarded with 11 million pieces of information. And believe it or not, our brain is only capable of processing 40 of those 11 million pieces of information per second3. In order to cope with the situation, our brain creates shortcuts and makes assumptions, drawing on our knowledge and past experiences, to help us make decisions quickly. As a result, we human beings constantly make what researchers call "implicit biased decisions" or more commonly known as unconscious biased decisions.

Unconscious bias decisions are not all bad. We rely on our unconscious processing ability to survive. For example, if you see a car coming toward you, hopefully your ability to unconsciously process this image quickly will result in you moving out of harm's way. This thought process is absolutely crucial to our survival, but because it is a natural process–we cannot control it. As a result, this unconscious process causes each of us to have bias.

Shaped by cultures, beliefs and personal experiences, different types of unconscious biases exist and unconscious gender bias is one of them. The Heidi/Howard Roizen case4 by University of Columbia's Business School demonstrated unconscious gender bias beautifully. The study involved students evaluating Howard Roizen's resume. Howard previously worked at Apple and had launched his own software company. He was well liked and well connected with powerful friends such as Bill Gates. The verdict on the fictional Howard was that he was a capable candidate who could get the job done.

The same resume was then re-evaluated by the same group of students, but this time it was in the name of Heidi Roizen. Would you be surprised to learn that Heidi's appraisal was less stellar? The students thought Heidi was more selfish and aggressive even though she was viewed as equally effective.

If you are a person who values gender diversity and inclusion, you are likely to feel uncomfortable with the results of the Heidi/Howard Roizen study. The challenge we face with gender bias is that it is often unconscious. At times, we may not be aware that we are making an assumption that is irrational and our opinion or decision could in fact contribute to imbalanced power dynamics. Unconscious gender bias can influence our everyday actions, such as job recruitment, promotions at work and student enrollment into certain courses. Our willingness to understand and minimise unconscious gender bias can have a significant impact on our work in creating an equitable society for both women and men.


So, what do we do given that we cannot rely on our brain to be rational and objective all the time? Acknowledgement is the first step in combating unconscious bias. Being aware that our decision-making is influenced by our own personal experiences and cultural beliefs is also important. It reminds us to expand our own knowledge and experiences so we are not confined within our limited boundaries. As biases are everywhere, it is also important to raise awareness by checking each other's biases. Start by reminding each other to exercise a perspective mindset, putting ourselves in others' shoes before making an assumption or judgement. This will help us become better decision makers and further our quest to achieving a more gender equitable society.


To be part of the solution for a gender equitable future, join us at the 2018 Global Partnership Summit from 24 to 27 July in New York City. Follow us on facebook to follow the conversations next week!


  1. Booth, A. L., Leigh, A. and Varganova, E. (2012). "Does Ethnic Discrimination Vary Across Minority Groups? Evidence from a Field Experiment", Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 74, 4, pp. 0305-9049.
  2. UN Women. (2016). "Re-thinking Culture: How to Drive Gender Diversity in the Workplace", the Gender Diversity Series 03 (Whitepaper), p 7.
  3. Wilson, T. D. (2002). "Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. McGinn, K. L. and Tempest, N. (2000, Revised 2010). "Heidi Roizen.", Harvard Business School Case, pp. 800-228.
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