When the Unconscious Becomes Conscious

I was driving home one day, listening to sports radio like I sometimes do, as the hosts prognosticated on the fate of this city’s favourite, ever-maddening hockey team.  Honestly, I can’t tell you why I keep listening – I think it helps me process my feelings of being a fan of this team for 20 years now, since I moved to Canada as an adult.

So there I was like usual, shaking my head at the opinion of analysts talking about the game from the night before.  Then from seemingly out of nowhere, a new voice came on.  It was the voice of a female hockey analyst.

In that very moment I thought, “Huh?  What does SHE know about hockey?”  I was really surprised by my own instant reaction!

Immediately, I went “Wait… what?!”  Why was I questioning this woman’s credibility in analyzing sports?  Me, an advocate for women’s success in the workplace.  Me, a woman who loves sports and believes I can hold a conversation about certain sports with anyone.  Me, a supporter of diversity and inclusion!

What I realized in that moment was that I had an unconscious bias against women when it came to hockey analysis.  I had an unconscious bias preferring men in this scenario.  This was probably because my brain was conditioned for so long to only listen to men’s voices in sports broadcasting.  Sure, there are some women on TV (still not a lot) but on radio, I’d heard mostly male voices.

This reinforces what I’m learning about unconscious bias.  Having it does not make us bad people.  Having unconscious bias means we have a brain that works hard to be efficient and it takes shortcuts.  Research says our brains process 11 million bits of information per second, through our senses.  11 million per second!  Out of those 11 million bits, we are consciously aware of about 40.  So, our brain takes shortcuts by recognizing patterns that helps us make sense of our world, and protect us from potential danger.

Sometimes, we discover our unconscious bias that way – by accident.  In my case on that day, when I noticed my reaction to a female voice.  The bias came to my awareness, and I had a choice in that moment.  What will I do with that new information and realization?  It’s something I’ve been reflecting on, and I decided that some steps I can take include noticing my reactions and exposing myself to more varied content (did you know that there’s a great hockey podcast hosted by women called Too Many Men?).

I think it’s helpful to turn on that awareness, that vigilance for unconscious biases which we might have about certain people or situations.   Like I said, it doesn’t make us bad people.  What matters is what we do with that awareness when it comes up to the surface, or when we bring it to the surface through our own reflection.

We can be sure that the learning here is never-ending.  Because we will continue to have new experiences and try to make sense of our world.  So we have to build our capacity for self-awareness and make it a point to tackle our unconscious biases.    Here are some strategies that can help:

  • Accept that we all have unconscious biases
  • Challenge your own narrative
  • Build your capacity for self-observation – pay attention to your assumptions and interpretations before taking action
  • Practice self-compassion
  • Ask others for feedback

Now, as I watch some hockey playoffs coverage, I am making a point of noticing my reactions to different voices and personalities, appreciating the perspectives they bring, and making sure I don’t lose interest when a female voice comes on.

You never know, one day it could be me sitting up there trying to convince people that my opinion matters.

In Kwela’s Introduction to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion workshop, we explore a number of concepts including Unconscious Bias.

Laura Villacrusis, Partner