It was early in my career, working in international trade and investment in Washington, DC, when I first became aware of widespread confirmation bias. I was typically the youngest and almost always the only woman in any meeting. Time and again, I’d make a recommendation, only to be dismissed or ignored by the room. Then, five minutes later, when a man would make the same suggestion, the response was, “Great idea, Bob!”

Confirmation bias is our tendency to support evidence that confirms already-held beliefs. I’m not suggesting that all of these men were intentionally sexist or ageist. But deeply ingrained biases informed their thinking: good ideas came from men with decades of experience, and the upstart woman in the room couldn’t possibly have anything to contribute. I don’t think they even heard what I’d said.

As defined all over the internet, “unconscious biases are social stereotypes that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. These biases stem from our tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.” In part, this is how we attempt to make sense of the world. But the dangers of leaving unconscious biases unchecked are myriad — from poor decision-making to harmful, even illegal, discriminatory practices, and worse.

Since our work at Miller Center pairs social entrepreneurs from around the world with more seasoned professionals, we’re especially attuned to the potential for imbalanced power dynamics. Our mentors are amazing, and they understand that establishing credibility and trust is essential for effective mentoring relationships. We all fully intend to support social entrepreneurs in ways that are respectful, authentic, and empowering. But sometimes, our conversations and interactions don’t go how we intend. Sometimes communications falter or break down.

Four years ago, a small group of mentors, staff, and experts formed our Unconscious Bias Working Group under the leadership of Miller Center’s Mentor Network Director Lynne Anderson. This group, which includes mentors Lisa Braden-Harder, Cynthia Lang, Jitendra Mudhal, and Ed Vargas and San Jose State professor Heidi Eisips, has been looking at ways to better understand where communications break down and mitigate unintentional harm. And their outstanding work is informing our thinking and actions across the center.

Last year, the working group developed a toolkit for mentors based on the work of social scientists, who have identified over 200 biases, and Kahneman et al., who narrowed the list to 12 biases that are particularly relevant to entrepreneurs (Harvard Business Review, 2013). The group aims to explore and address unconscious bias and how it may arise in the mentoring relationship.

Adapted from the Cognitive Bias Codex conceived and categorized by Buster Benson

The good news is that these unconscious biases are malleable, and we can take steps to minimize their impact (Dasgupta, 2013). We owe it to ourselves and others to become aware of our biases and work to overcome them. We can also be upstanders when we witness someone else encountering bias. Challenging our preconceptions and leading by example will have positive effects throughout our work and personal lives as we create spaces where everyone can be their authentic selves and be respected and heard.


Note: If you have a story encountering bias, please share it with our team at mc-mentors@scu.edu, along with responses to that bias that promoted change. These stories provide valuable insights and learning opportunities.