Beyond awareness: unconscious bias and Frank Sinatra’s song by Jens Schadendorf

By Guest Contributor Jens Schadendorf

Author of GaYme Changer, Jens Schadendorf, explains more about unconscious bias.



Taylor Cox, with his work on the “multicultural organization” and diversity starting in the early ’90s, is one of the pioneers of modern diversity management. Early on he stressed that neither diversity management’s beginning in a company nor its sustainable practice were straightforward. Rather, diversity management had to be strategic. It required systems and practices for managing an organization’s members so diversity’s potential benefits – e.g. varied views, better decisions, higher productivity – would outweigh potential disadvantages, such as increased conflict. Today, this finding is undisputed.

Cox also identified some key potential pitfalls in D&I management – and a very crucial one is unconscious prejudice or bias. Supported by D&I research and practice, it is today also undisputed that an open organizational culture valuing diversity – that is, respecting, recognizing, and appreciating every employee in all their facets – cannot develop without dealing with each participant’s unconscious biases. Such an open organizational culture is a preeminent precondition for harvesting the diversity dividend of higher productivity.

Briefly summarized, unconscious biases – or just bias – refers to beliefs that affect our perception, assessment, decisions, and actions unconsciously. Research shows how biases widely held about diversity dimensions such as gender, ethnicity/race, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity are the products of lifelong conditioning. It starts with direct and indirect messages from parents, teachers, etc. and continues via the media, peer groups, organizations, and more.



These biases are pervasive. We all hold them, even those committed to impartiality, such as judges or referees. They are often so ingrained in society, organizations, and groups that they go unnoticed by many members. Sometimes, unconscious biases are also called “implicit biases” – to differentiate them from explicit (conscious) biases. For example, if asked whether we think heterosexual people are “better” than gays and answer “yes,” this is explicit, conscious bias: homophobia.

Contrarily, though we are unaware of implicit biases, they still influence us. For example, we might, without realizing it, consider lesbian mothers inferior to heterosexual mothers – even if we would not rationally defend this. This is very different from deliberately hiding an explicit bias for reasons of social cohesion/political correctness.

Of course, conscious and unconscious biases affect each other. If we have always heard that women are too weak and emotional to be good managers, scientists, or soldiers, our decisions regarding recruitment, career development, and promotion may well be adversely affected.

As I said, everyone holds unconscious biases – and not all are negative. They can be useful mental shortcuts to faster decisions or support for group harmony.



But clearly, they can also lead to pigeonhole thinking, blind spots, and denial of others’ viewpoints, blocking access to the new, shutting down exploratory thinking, and diversity’s potential advantages. Given modern society’s pressure to compete creatively and innovatively, this is a major disadvantage.

The list of (conscious and) unconscious prejudices against LGBT+ people, for instance, is long and well-known. Here are two examples from Vienna’s Anti-discrimination Office for Same-sex and Transgender Lifestyles which I found when researching my latest book GaYme Changer: How the LGBT+ community and their allies are changing the global economy, which I have referred to in previous blogs:

  • “Gay men are particularly sensitive.” At work, the mental shortcut can be: he’s gay, ergo sensitive, ergo not assertive, ergo not a leader. The truth is, of course, there are insensitive gays and sensitive heterosexuals and all points in between.


  • “Lesbian women are misandrists (hate men).” At work, this can mean lesbian women are considered poor team players, supposedly likely to exclude men. The truth is, although lesbians have romantic relationships with women, most of them have successful and fulfilling professional and personal relationships with everyone, as most heterosexuals do.

Moreover, it is well known today that working with people clearly different from yourself – in whatever respect – can challenge the brain to overcome ingrained thinking, often associated with conscious and unconscious prejudice, and thus improve performance.



The good news is, implicit biases are malleable. The unconscious associations we have formed can be gradually unlearned, e.g. through a variety of debiasing techniques. Today, workshops with unconscious-bias training are standard for almost all global companies that have professional D&I management. Ideally, all managers and employees receive such training regularly.

All global institutions that promote and evaluate LGBT+ friendliness in the workplace are as one in emphasizing the great importance of targeted sensitization to unconscious biases. This includes institutions such as the Human Rights Campaign, Out Leadership and Out & Equal in the US, Stonewall and INvolve in the UK, Parks in Italy, L’Autre Cercle in France, Workplace Pride in the Netherlands, Prout at Work and Uhlala in Germany, REDI in Spain, Pride at Work/Fierté au Travail in Canada, Pride Circle in India, Community Business in Hong Kong, ACON in Australia, and more.

In recent years, there have been some discussions about whether artificial intelligence (AI) can support the overcoming of human unconscious bias, for example, with algorithms checking resumés in recruitment processes. There may by pitfalls. In October 2018, Reuters, for example, summarized one of the challenges in a headline: “Amazon scraps secret AI recruiting tool that showed bias against women.”

Though it is certain that digital technology can help to overcome biases in many ways – through webinars, digital awareness trainings, and much more – it must not be forgotten that AI-based tools are made by human beings who have biases too, and/or are based on experience and data from the past that (may) reflect or embody bias.



At any rate, in the course of research for my book, one (white, heterosexual) top executive who wanted to remain anonymous told me that, for him, overcoming conscious and, even more, unconscious bias against LGBT+ people is the key to an open, appreciative working culture in general. He acknowledged the problem of other prejudices. But, he added, “It’s like that New York song by Frank Sinatra … ‘If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.’”

If the organization, he explained, succeeds in overcoming the conscious and unconscious prejudices and clichés about LGBT+ people, which are the most deeply rooted and the most stigmatizing, then they have done it: “… we really have an open culture that values everyone, encouraging more creativity, merit-orientation and productivity.”

Perhaps that’s not the whole story. In view of the Black Live Matters movement, some parts of the LGBT+ community in liberal Western societies – for example in the US, the UK, France, and the

Netherlands – started to reflect critically about their own biases and unconscious practice of excluding LGBT+ people of colour. Those engaging in these reflections included members of the business world, detecting, confessing to, and discussing unpleasant realities, for example, the fact that the dominant figures in most of the firm’s employee networks or other organizations working for LGBT+ equality were white gay men, reproducing in a way the overall prevailing societal gender and ethnic/race power structures.

In view of this insight, the top executive I spoke to might want to adapt his statement and, taking an intersectional perspective, now say,

“If the organization succeeds in overcoming the conscious and unconscious prejudices and clichés about LGBT+ people of colour – or more specific: about trans, intersex and non-binary people of colour – we really have an open culture that values everyone, encouraging more creativity and productivity.”


JENS SCHADENDORF is an economist, author and keynote-speaker on topics related to diversity and inclusion (D&I), primarily LGBT+ D&I, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and leadership. He also advises companies, scientists, and managers on book projects globally and consults on communications, change, and CSR matters. Alongside this, he is also an independent LGBT+ diversity researcher at the Chair of Business Ethics at the Technical University of Munich, Germany.



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The LGBT+ community has experienced a stunning development in a short period of time: yesterday marginalized, stigmatized, and criminalized, now champions of creativity, diversity and innovation in a highly competitive world. In addition, corporate social responsibility and ethical demands for inclusivity have become economic directives that every organization would like to attain. The struggle of recognition is not over yet, but in workplaces and markets, gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and queer individuals have become symbols of diversity and economic power – true GaYme Changers developing the global economy faster and for the better.

Illustrated by fascinating stories around individuals, companies, nonprofits and a fast-growing cohort of organizations, Jens Schadendorf has traced the LGBT+ community and an increasing number of their allies from across the globe to discover the start of a revolution. Supported by up-to-date research, he shows that investment in LGBT+ inclusion delivers a powerful return. Always – even in times of hostility, resistance and crisis – it is economically and ethically beneficial for companies and societies and every human being, to let LGBT+ members develop into dynamic forces, rooted in new forms of cooperation and learning for ga(y)me changing results.

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