DjangoCon Europe 2017 - Navigating unconscious bias

Speaker: Anna Schneider


Bias is prejudice in favor or against one thing, person, or group, compared with another, usually in a way that is considered unfair.

Unconscious bias is present everywhere, produced e.g. by negative stereotypes:

  • Men are breadwinners
  • Women are caring
  • Women can either be beautiful or intelligent
  • African-Americans are criminals
  • Asian people are good math
  • Technical talks are held by men


Stereotypes are damaging: they result in aggression, inability to focus, decreased performance, low health, depression, hypertension …

Both conscious and unconscious bias lead to barriers to entering areas contradicting stereotypes, both in learning itself and admission. Further on, bias also puts on barriers to rising up in that area, by reducing received callbacks for job applications, and introducing a requirement to prove skills over and over again. Finally, bias also leads to people leaving that area at higher rates.

Women leave tech jobs at a higher raise than they leave non-tech jobs. Reasons may include simply the pay gap, unsupportive culture (eg via irrelevant feedback).

Evidence of bias has been found against basically every marginalized group (gay people, even when legal, people with disabilities, even if unimportant to the job, mothers while fathers suffer no decrease in standing, and people of foreign origin). Belonging to several disadvantaged group increases this negative bias

Implicit bias is real, and is impacting diversity. 60% of white male software developers think diversity is important.

Handling biased situations

Working together with empathy an compassion may help to reduce unconscious bias. There is UBP: Unconscious Bias Project. They gave versions of the following to different audiences about ten times last year.


"She's really smart, I just wish she wasn't so bossy". How do you react?

  • Call attention to it: "Ouch, that's a bit harsh"
  • Counter/redirect: "She's not bossy, she's a leader." (transform micro-aggression into micro-affection)
  • Buddy system
    • Stick up for each other
    • Give emotional support
    • Give credit
    • Interrupt situations
    • Recon afterwards
  • Explain clearly why something is not okay
  • Reflect by asking questions: "Why do you say/think that …"
  • Label the bias: "This is only a problem due to …"
  • Challenge assumptions: "Why do you think I cannot do this?"
  • Make limits clear. Do not shy away from confrontation
  • Try not become the token minority


Talking about bias can bring up strong emotions. Use the four pillars of self-awareness?

  • Emotional: How are you feeling emotionally?
  • Physiological: How is your body? Relax, check your body language.
  • Cognitive: Why are you doing this? Basic values etc
  • Behavioural: Step away, or take a walk, decide on what to do.

Let's go about changing bias in a fact-based way. There is a paper about "Long-term reduction in implicit race bias." This makes you motivated to overcome bias, helps you detect the influence of bias and gives you strategies to handle it.

Try it!


  • Use Stereotype replacement. Notice and acknowledge stereotyping thoughts.
  • Find counter-stereotypic examples in social situations.
  • Individuate your responses instead of generalizing ("you" instead of "people like you").
  • Perspective taking helps you think about how others feel in a situation
  • Increase exposure and contact to groups you're not in contact with (by starting new hobbies etc). This may be scary, but it pays off.
  • Be curious about others instead of defensive.

Biased thoughts are a habit that can be (mostly) broken.


Good policies may guide people's unconscious behaviour, but they cannot provide one size fits all solutions. There is, e.g. Project Include. Their guidelines include:

  • Value transparency and consistency
    • Define compensation transparently
    • Make promotion strategies clear
    • Provide ways to report conflicts
  • Train soft skills
    • Train on how to interview
    • Train managers and mentors
  • Aim for inclusion and equity and not just diversity
    • Diversity is about representation
    • Equity is about resources and opportunities being fairly distributed
    • Inclusion is … about feelings. This is hard. Write inclusive recruiting texts, provide fair benefits, and focus on power dynamics

Also, listen to these talks at DjangoCon! We have talks about community, communication, reporting, learning, interviewing, mentoring, neurodiversity, …

Wrapping up

Unconscious is real, but the solutions are real to, and everybody needs to work on themselves in this.