Unconscious bias in higher education: How to find it, how to change it (#41)

author's headshotauthor's headshotauthor's headshot
Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
apple podcast logotunein podcast logospotify logoamazon podcast logogoogle podcast logo
Subscribe to
spotify logoapple podcast logotunein podcast logogoogle podcast logoamazon podcast logo

In this guest blog post, Jessica Kanzler shares how in her experience with higher education, unconscious bias is more subtle than overt.

I was homeless for many years as a child, and often if I ate that day, it was because I went to school. For many students, schools are resources that keep them alive, and there was very little in place to continue those services during the pandemic. Students without access to steady internet, a consistent roof, transportation to pick up assignments, and a strong support network were forgotten. Some disappeared or dropped out. In high schools across the country, students simply disappeared from classes because they could not attend remotely.1 That inattention reflects bias.

My experience with higher education has shown that unconscious bias is more subtle than overt. It’s hard to see because so much of academia is overtly progressive while being subtly regressive in what is one of the most frustrating paradoxes I’ve experienced. It’s hard to identify since it gets intermingled with inclusiveness and acceptance. Program directors will include a gay man in an example for their teachers to discuss, then ignore complaints of discrimination. Students will read Black authors but not learn about the context in which they wrote. Administration will add their pronouns to an email but remove trans-related medical care from health insurance options.

Unconscious bias does not necessarily reveal a person to be secretly racist or homophobic, but it does influence their actions, and those actions may have real, painful consequences.

students in classroom listening to lecture
Neon Brand on Unsplash

What exactly is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias, or implicit bias, is an unconscious attitude one may hold about various social or identity groups.2 Having an unconscious bias does not automatically mean a person is prejudiced, but their actions may sting just as if they were. 

An interesting example of this happened when I compare two classes I taught. Before I came out, each of my classes had to be asked exactly once before they would quiet down. Total silence. It was amazing. The semester after I came out, I strongly considered keeping an air horn with my whiteboard markers. Granted, every class is different, but the change was stark enough that I confidently attribute some of it to implicit bias in the first class in favor of the male authority I expertly pretended to be. 

At one of my last teaching jobs, I was a Lorax. Created by Dr. Seuss, the Lorax was a small, fluffy creature who spoke for the trees. His reward for defending them was being ignored while his beloved forest was cut down.

As one of two minority teachers in my department, I was the Lorax who spoke for the LGBTs, and my best friend, the only teacher of color in our department, spoke for all people of color. If one of my coworkers didn’t know how to reach out to one of their queer students, I’d get an email. If a fellow teacher learned through a student’s writing that they were questioning their gender and wanted someone to talk to, I’d get an office hour visit. If my boss was instituting a policy to include pronouns in email signatures, I was consulted to figure out the wording on the email.

My coworkers were not homophobic, nor were they transphobic, and they never demonstrated anything other than willingness to help their students. But they operated with an unconscious bias: if an LGBT student needed something, it was okay to just hand them off to the gay teacher.

My feelings throughout my tenure as the Lorax were conflicted. On the one hand, I was happy they were willing to seek out someone informed on LGBT issues. On the other, most of my straight White coworkers were brilliant writers, researchers, teachers, and problem solvers. I’d seen them break down complex topics and concepts, so why were they all coming to me instead of doing their own research?

Why didn’t they go to other LGBTs who I know had vastly different experiences than mine and could speak for themselves? My coworkers should be listening to more people than me. 

What does unconscious bias look like?

Unconscious bias may influence a person’s actions despite not reflecting that person’s conscious beliefs. A study measuring responses to emails from imaginary students – representing different ethnicities and genders – found massive discrepancies in frequency of responses. Female Chinese names, the category with the fewest responses, were contacted 29 percent less frequently than their White male counterparts. This gap is the most significant, but any measurable gap is alarming. 

While this information does not reveal these academics to be consciously racist or sexist, it does show that their actions resulted in discrimination. Whether their biased attitude was purposeful or unconscious, discrimination was the result.3

As of fall 2017, approximately 76 percent of postsecondary faculty members in the United States were White.4 This lines up with my experience; while it is unclear how many LGBT faculty there are in higher education, I worked at a university of approximately 30,000 students and knew most of the few out queer faculty.

These numbers represent a problem with unconscious bias which then results in a hidden problem with work delegation. Research suggests that teachers of color show less bias than White teachers.5 To be clear, I am not saying that all White teachers are racist. Yet we are the ones demonstrated by research to be the most susceptible to unconscious bias. Second, if my experience is at all representative of what other minority educators experience, then a small percentage of the workforce is taking on more work than should be required of them. 

Unconscious bias has so many different faces at the university. They are hard to quantify, but easy to see if you are paying attention. At my university, teachers who were parents were given preferential scheduling. Teachers with non-traditional families, or queer teachers who would love to be parents but cannot afford thousands of dollars for assisted reproduction were most likely to be stuck with teaching at 8 am on Fridays. 

Dealing with our own biases

When I was just starting as a teacher, I realized I had my own unconscious bias to work through. I had several Chinese students in my class, and I realized because they were still gaining fluency with English, I hadn’t been treating them the same as my native speakers. It took one of my students saying English was his 6th language for me to realize how far from behind my international students had come. They were taking university courses in a language they hadn’t been immersed in their whole lives, yet they were doing great. I stopped thinking of my international students as catching up and starting thinking of them as people who knew two or three more languages than I did.

Unconscious bias is not always negative. In some cases, it is overtly positive. Before I came out, I was assigned an office. I wasn’t super thrilled with the assignment, but I accepted it. A day after coming out to my boss, I was called into their office, asked what office I’d like to be placed in, who I’d like to share it with and where the relevant restrooms would be located. My boss was obviously making extra allowances for me because I was the only out LGBT person in her department. Not being perfect, I accepted this preferential treatment, sharing an office with my best friend for a year. Our office had the only LGBT person and the only person of color, so we called it Minority Manor. It was a great time, and I later learned it only happened because this boss assumed I wanted to get them fired. What felt like equity was actually acting based off fear informed by some implicit bias that because I was queer, I was looking to be offended.

What can be done?

A major problem with unconscious bias is that the people who notice it are generally not the people who have it. The bias usually does not line up with the holder’s conscious beliefs. The primary hurdle is finding a way to uncover it.

What has worked in the past is a combination of reflection, deliberate inclusion, and feedback.6 For White educators like me, and straight educators who want to learn, it’s important to try to consciously ferret out our unconscious biases. A concept that can drive reflection and analysis is chronic unease: maintaining a consistent state of wariness that will help you notice when things aren’t as they should be. This means looking at our practices critically and reflecting upon our pedagogical habits, both in terms of how we teach and how we interact with different students and how they are allowed to interact with the school.

Unconscious bias often ends up silencing diverse voices simply by not listening to them. The solution:

  • Make a deliberate effort to hear from every student and give students the opportunity to speak, not just from their knowledge about your class but also about their personal and social expertise.
  • Cultivate an environment of inclusion by celebrating diverse voices, listening to everyone, and not demanding that your voice always be the loudest. Teachers are great at talking, but we don’t have to do it all the time.
  • Seek out and listen to feedback from students and peers. I have observed my coworkers teach many times, and they have observed me. I noticed another teacher wrote examples exclusively with men in them; they changed it. A coworker noticed I didn’t call on men as often as women, and I made a conscious effort to change that. Last year, one of my Chinese students noted that I’d forgotten to upload a few of my presentations from class, so I uploaded them and she was able to study at her own pace. We listen to feedback and take action based on it.
group of students on stage graduating in their gowns
Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Jessica Kanzler headshot

Jessica Kanzler

Jessica lives with her wife and two cats in Northern Arizona, where she teaches high school and college English. Jessica primarily writes about issues of social justice, modern pedagogy, and fiction with a special interest in blog-writing.


The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Think about your interactions with people from unfamiliar groups.  What are your assumptions?  Are they reasonable? 
  2. How might people prejudge you?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills
covered in this blog post

  • Testing assumptions
    • Test your assumptions about others
    • Check to see if you are making cultural assumptions
  • Build effective relationships
    • Develop skills in inquiry and openness
  • Bridging differences
    • Develop an awareness of your own stereotyping tendencies and biases and learn how to manage them
    • Address underlying systemic biases
    • Maintain chronic unease
  • Initiating change
    • Surface undiscussables
    • Keep in mind revolutionary patience

    #BridgingDifferences    #ChronicUnease    #InternalizedOppression   #RevolutionaryPatience

Leading Consciously

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.    

It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.

  • See our website and join our mailing list
  • Read our blogs
  • Ask us about our leadership development programs:
  • Pathfinders: Leadership for Inclusion and Equity is our online membership program designed to develop leadership and change-making principles and skills in multicultural organizations. You'll discover how to recognize racism, promote inclusion, and join in insightful, respectful exchanges of views and opinions tackling a variety of concepts.
  • ChangeMakers Online is our intensive, skill-based program. You will learn how to respond more flexibly to rapid change (leadership agility) and different others (cultural agility), recoup after challenges (resilience), and form strong and collaborative relationships (connection). With these advanced skills, you are better able to lead yourself and others toward higher levels of success.
Let’s start a conversation. Email us at jeanLC@leadingconsciously.com