Unconscious bias-what is it and what can we do about it

Since International Women’s day I have noticed various articles circulating about Unconscious Bias or the blind spots that we all have that impact unconsciously on the way we treat others. These affect us all unknowingly-how we think about issues, how we respond to situations, and how we make decisions. It is particularly topical now, as gender bias is one of the most prevalent blind spots that can result in people not being treated with equality. Most of us-85 % so I understand- associate men with career and women with home. This can have a profound impact on how women and men are treated in positions of leadership and promotion.


All of us have core values that are universal, but we also each have unique experiences and stories that result in us having our own individual frame of reference for the world. We naturally move closer to those who are more like us, and studies on neural pathways show that we are more sympathetic and empathetic to those who resemble us and are more like us.


Most of us are well intentioned and would like to think that we can resist bias and be accepting and inclusive of diversity. However studies demonstrate clearly that even on the level of the language we use, the tone and pitch of our voice, these can change unconsciously depending on the appearance of those around us. Our bias can impact significantly on our assessment of people’s competence and how we treat them.


A great TED Talk that illustrates how these blind spots permeate all aspects of our lives can be found at:


Stereotyping and generalisations are a reliable indication that unconscious bias is involved! Different types of biases include:

  • Value attribution-instinctive and not fact based;
  • Confirmation bias-seek out information that only confirms our beliefs;
  • Groupthink bias-defer to the majority or powerful members;
  • Availability bias-reliance on recent or more easily recalled information or examples;
  • Status quo bias-favour current situation rather than change;
  • Affinity bias-favour those similar to ourselves;
  • Attribution error-explain behavior based on preferences rather than facts;
  • In-group bias-favour members of our group over outsiders.


It is one thing is to recognize that we all have biases, quite another to know what can be done to manage these. Suggestions would include:

  • Remind ourselves that we have unconscious biases;
  • Create the right conditions to avoid reliance on them-reduce time pressures, multitasking, cognitive load and fatigue;
  • Question first impressions;
  • Use mindfulness;
  • Engage in slow rather than fast and intuitive thinking;
  • Develop self reflective skills to put yourself in other’s shoes and gain an understanding of the situation from their perspective;
  • Image a situation with a difference image-through a different lens or different eyes;
  • Develop improved decision making processes that are transparent
  • Ask debiasing questions-focus on what is important, seek a diverse perspective, create alternatives and options rather than merely one way of proceeding, identify risks
  • Ask for feedback


As a professional assisting in the area of family disputes, I am particularly interested in exploring the need to identify and work with unconscious bias in the dispute resolution context. This would involve identifying biases that I bring to a situation, and also those that are brought by the parties that I am seeking to assist. Decisions are the culmination of a process, the end-point of a journey taken together, and the design of this process can take into account the existence of biases and counteract these to promote and foster good quality decision-making.


Good processes in the family dispute context are described as requiring the collection of all relevant information, the understanding of this information by all participants, the development of a range of possible alternatives, and negotiation to result in acceptance of a mutually acceptable option. This outcome should be tested for risks and biases, which could involve the following questions:

  • Is this decision based on facts or instinct?
  • Is the analysis supported by social science, or any experts who have been involved?
  • Have all credible alternatives been considered?
  • Has this decision been subjected to the required level of scrutiny?
  • Have all views been considered and granted the same degree of credibility?
  • Have we explored not only the best outcome but also the worst and the most likely outcome should the matter proceed to court?
  • Is this decision overly influenced by self-interest, a dominant voice, or attachment to the status quo?
  • Would I feel comfortable being held accountable for this outcome?


The Law Council of Australia has reported extensively on the impact of unconscious bias in the legal profession:


The Family Law Section is also promoting a great online course on this topic that can be accessed through their website.


Melbourne University Law School is also hosting a public lecture on 4 April at Seabrook Chambers by the Honourable Allyson K. Duncan, Federal Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on the topic of Diversity in the Legal Profession: Reflections on Gender Equity and the Rule of Law:


If you too are troubled by the need to raise awareness and develop strategies and skills to combat unconscious bias, contact me at Creative Family Law Solutions, so that we can compare experiences and share this journey together.

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