Unconscious bias against women, or conscious bias against men?

A new Harvard study has been designed to test our unsconscious biases: (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html) . Unconscious biases no doubt exist and serve a functional role. They are a shorthand way by which our mind processes realities which we see all around us. However, our unconscious mind tends to process averages and reoccurring patterns. Our unconscious mind has less space for processing nuances, differences and challenges to our stereotypes; these are the issues which preoccupy our conscious minds. And our conscious minds heavily mediate between our unconscious and how we act on the world.

This is why even if we unconsciously thought men were better scientists this wouldn’t really matter because it is our conscious minds which influence what we actually do. It is for this reason that despite evidence for the existence of unconscious bias against women in academia there is no evidence to suggest that there is bias against women in hiring practices. In fact, if anything the evidence suggests that the bias is the other way around.

Ceci et al. in their paper Women in an academic landscape, conclude after looking at a whole range of studies on recruitment that there is no real world hiring data which shows a bias against hiring women. Actually if we look at the data it would appear that there is a conscious effort to favour women in areas where they are under-represented.

Do our unconscious biases matter if we regularly override them in our day to day life?

It is also the case that sometimes the observations of our conscious minds can tally with what our unconscious minds tell us. A female employee for example might be less committed to her job and less interested in it after having a baby and actually not particularly want to be promoted. Just because our conscious mind tallies with our unconscious mind this does not mean it is wrong. So when there are fewer women in high status positions this might not be because of our unconscious bias, it might be because there simply aren’t enough women willing to compete for this high status position.

To assume it is because of unconscious bias is to force somebody else’s belief system and prejudices about us on to us. This is an abuse of power, it happens all the time, and it is wrong.

Our unconscious biases may serve a useful cognitive function and we should not be forced to override them. This amounts to brainwashing. If we see people acting in an unfair way this constitutes a problem. Not what goes in our unconscious minds.


Ceci, S. J., Ginther, D. K., Kahn, S., & Williams, W. M. (2014). Women in academic science A changing landscape. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15(3), 75-141.