Unconscious Bias: A Filmmaker’s Challenge

Shedding light on the way unconscious bias actually works inside a person.

The office location was prepped. The crew was ready, the actors knew their lines, and we were all set to start shooting at 6 a.m. the next day. But as I reviewed the shooting script for the hundredth time, I started to have a nagging feeling that I hadn’t yet solved the most critical problem of the production: how to make visible something that’s invisible and unconscious?

It was the night before shooting a video about unconscious bias, and the pressure was on. I had wrestled with this problem for months— how to make visible an unconscious bias? Of course, the bias would be invisible for the characters in the scene, but it’s also unconscious for the viewers in their own lives. So how to deliver an experience and do it in less than 15 minutes?

Although I’ve worked for more than 20 years developing and producing training programs on workplace diversity and inclusion issues, I was stumped. I knew I had great vignettes that showed the impact of bias and that these would touch the viewer emotionally, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to shed light on the way unconscious bias actually works inside a person.

So, like many writers facing a block, I tossed aside the script and flicked on the TV. As I settled in for a nice channel surf, my mind relaxed and I let go of the problem. Somewhere between This Is Us and Property Brothers, I saw it. Sherlock! Benedict Cumberbatch was standing in the middle of a crime scene and everywhere he looked, microscopic details came to him. Blonde hair, dust from an obscure mine on the coast of England, a hidden weapon, and even a motive. With blinding speed, he made connections. The filmmakers gave us Sherlock’s point of view and for even more clarity, added words to describe the connections he was making. It was brilliant, and I knew that if I adapted it for our video, it could help solve the problem of showing what’s in Joe’s unconscious.


Early the next morning, fortified with a strong coffee, I made notes on the shooting script. On set, I worked with Joe, a middle-aged manager, and Sheila, a 20-something customer service specialist. Joe thinks he’s being open-minded and that he’ll give Sheila a fair chance in the interview to be hired. But Joe never hires anyone under 30.

In order to show what’s going on inside Joe during the interview, we made a series of shots Sherlock-style, what we call POV (point of view). As Joe listens to Sheila talk, the viewer gets to see what’s really going on inside him: He notices that she touches her phone a lot, and that she wears noisy bangles and boots and talks at a different pace than he’s used to. Sheila’s voice drifts away and it becomes clear Joe is unconscious to his internal assumptions about Sheila: “Uncommitted. Unreliable. Under 30. Won’t Stick Around. Too Young.”

I knew this was going to work if I set up the visual with a question, “What if this is what’s going on inside Joe’s unconscious without his even realizing it?” I was excited for the video, and it gave me pause to realize so directly that this is actually what’s going on inside all of us all the time!

This pivotal scene set the tone for the entire video by showing what’s going on inside Joe, and more importantly, that it’s off his radar. What if, despite all Joe’s best intentions, he never gets past his unconscious biases? The scene also prepares viewers to explore what they can do to disrupt and defeat their own personal biases.


In the next scenes, I introduced skills that can be used to counter one’s bias. For Joe, the suggestion was to use the “power of logic.” What if Joe had asked himself, “How many people under 30 do I really know who are uncommitted and unreliable?”

Turns out logic is a powerful tool for defeating bias because you can use it to dismantle a hidden assumption about a person or group of people. Taking the time to ask yourself a logic question about something that has so far seemed “right” can open up new ways of making decisions, communicating, and interacting with colleagues and teams.

Having gained confidence in the first scene, the rest of the shoot days went very well. The actors took on the challenge and gave us many difficult, awkward moments when communication is influenced by bias. From gender to age to language, we showed biases that are all too common in the workplace today. This made it crucial to keep in mind that the end-users, the viewers/trainees, would be bringing their own experiences and biases to the viewing. I wanted them to recognize the possibility that they have unconscious biases, not feel blamed, and then equip them with practical tools they can use to defeat their unconscious biases.

Of course, reminding trainees that we all have biases and that they don’t make us bad people is important for facilitators, as well as filmmakers. As I see it, the question is what we choose to do about those biases, even when they’re unconscious.

In addition to the “power of logic,” the video goes on to outline four other skills people can use to intentionally take a stand against their own biases. I was fortunate to draw upon the work of Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D., and she brought many stories and solutions to the script.

Personally, making this video opened my eyes to how many assumptions are running underneath all of my conscious intentions, and I find myself using the strategies all the time. Since the release of the video, I’ve been fortunate to share it at live workshops and see what worked as I’d hoped, and what surprised me in other ways. It has been deeply rewarding to bring not just awareness but concrete action steps to unconscious bias training.

Joel Lesko is a filmmaker and inclusion coach who’s worked for the last 25 years to bring new ideas and practices to the workplace, mainly in the areas of unconscious bias, speaking up against stereotypes, and finding common ground for real inclusion. As the producer of training programs such as “Ouch! That Stereotype Hurts” and “Defeating Unconscious Bias,” Lesko has worked with corporations around the globe, including Sysco, Sodexo, McDonald’s, AT&T, and Key Bank. For more information, visit http://www.unconsciousbias.info.