Equality, diversity and unconscious bias

The University has a strong and long-standing commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. We promote a positive culture which celebrates difference, challenges prejudice, and ensures fairness.

Our staff and students are our greatest assets and all members of the University community should expect to be able to excel, and to be respected and valued for their unique perspectives and contributions. For these reasons we are very sensitive to the potential for bias in responses to course level feedback.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making rapid judgements and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. (Equality Challenge Unit: 2013 Unconscious bias in higher education)

The experiences, values, and attitudes we have come across in our lives shapes our view of the world. They can influence the decisions we make, the relationships we have, and the opinions we ourselves hold.

Sometimes we are aware when our judgement is clouded. For example, a new father might say, “I have the cutest baby in the world - but I'm biased.”

However, in many cases, our biases can be “unconscious”, and much more difficult to acknowledge. We can overlook influence of this bias if we don't realise that we hold certain views, and consider why we hold them.

Bias can creep into any situation where individuals have the power to influence the outcome through their decisions and actions. Bias can be costly. It can cause us to make decisions that are not objective, miss opportunities and limit potential. 

Who might I be biased towards?

It is possible to be unconsciously biased against people based on, for example:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Nationality
  • Economic background
  • Political affiliation
  • Age
  • Disability

This list is not exhaustive and other biases can and do exist.        

How can unconscious bias be expressed?

  • Bias against people with any of the above characteristics
  • Popular stereotypes regarding any of the above characteristics
  • Opinions based on generalities or one-off experiences
  • Bias caused by long-held values, for example based on our parents’ opinions
  • Bias based on our earliest encounters with the world

How can I identify my biases?

When being asked to evaluate your course, ask yourself questions about your thought process:

  • Is my opinion influenced by any of the above characteristics?
  • What would someone who disagrees with me say?
  • What is preventing me from changing my mind? 

What are some ways I can manage my biases?

  • Evaluate and challenge the first opinion that comes to your mind.
  • Consider whether your decision is based on values or facts.
  • Talk to others with differing viewpoints.
  • Try to remain as objective as you can.

Log in to Learn with EASE using your University of Edinburgh credentials and use the Self-Enrol tab to enrol on the Unconscious Bias course:

Log in to Learn (EASE authentication required)

 What are some examples?

  • A first year student is asked what she thought of her first literature course at University, and all her feedback is negative. Inwardly she feels a male tutor would have given better comments on her essays, because her high school teachers, who were male, did.
  • A student feels a female tutor favours only female students and scores the entire course negatively as a result.               
  • An Erasmus student praises a tutor with the same accent as him while overlooking the instructor's poor attendance and inconsistent marking.