Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Unconscious bias

Implicit or unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realising. Our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. We may not even be aware of these views and opinions, or be aware of their full impact and implications.

Research has found that unconscious bias can heavily influence recruitment and selection decisions. Several experiments using CV shortlisting exercises have highlighted bias by gender and ethnicity.

Here in Physics all staff and students are offered equality and diversity training. All staff involved in recruitment are required to complete the Recruitment and Selection e-training modules and are prompted to refresh their training every 3 years.

Guidelines on limiting unconscious bias when providing a reference (with thanks to McMaster University):

According to a report issued by the American Association of University Women, implicit biases operate at an unconscious level, are influenced by our cultural environment and can impact our decision making. A study from Wayne State University, which systematically compared letters of recommendation written for female applicants with those written for male applicants, found that, compared to the letters written for men, those written for women were more likely to:

  • be shorter in length and incomplete;
  • include gendered terms (e.g., woman, lady, mother, wife);
  • include fewer ‘standout’ adjectives (e.g., excellent, outstanding etc.);
  • include ‘doubt raisers’ (negative language, hedges, unexplained comments, faint praise and irrelevancies);
  • focus on interpersonal attributes versus research skills/achievements (e.g., kindness, compassionate etc.); and
  • include personal information that was not relevant to the position.

It is important to avoid unconscious bias within letters of recommendation as it can potentially have an unintended negative impact on the overall success/career of individuals—especially in the case of women. Research shows that social and environmental factors (including unconscious bias) contribute to the under-representation of women in science.

How to Limit Unconscious Bias in references:

In order to limit the influence of unconscious bias within your letter, consider the following:

  • Focus on comparing the nominee with the specific requirements of the position.
  • Avoid using stereotypical adjectives when describing character and skills, especially when providing a letter for a woman (e.g., avoid words like nice, kind, agreeable, sympathetic, compassionate, selfless, giving, caring, warm, nurturing, maternal, etc.).
  • Consider using ‘stand-out’ adjectives for both men and women, where appropriate (e.g., superb, excellent, outstanding, confident, successful, ambitious, knowledgeable, intellectual etc).
  • Use the nominee’s formal title and surname instead of their first name.
  • Consider whether your letter unintentionally includes gaps, or doubt-raising, negative or unexplained statements (e.g., ‘might make an excellent leader’ versus ‘is an established leader’).


    For more information:
    Information on the Equality Challenge Unit website

    Implicit and unconscious, the bias in us all, Royal Society

    Reading: Unconscious bias in Higher Education- a literature review

    For Training (Warwick staff/students only):