Unconscious bias and why it matters in the workplace

Thursday, November 14, 2019

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MOUNT VERNON -- The issue of bias formed an essential part of my consciousness from an early age.

As part of a New York Jewish family moving from Rhode Island to North Carolina in the mid-1960s when I started school, I experienced and saw first-hand prejudices based on not only religion and geography but, much more significantly, on race and gender.

At that time, intentional bias was rampant and expected, or at least accommodated, widely. Institutional bias was in various states of strength, apart from the mostly invisible forms many of which persist today. Unconscious bias – ingrained and invisible prejudices -- survives in force because we often don’t recognize its presence. It guides unseen many of our routine thoughts and decisions.

Anyone should be concerned about the notion unconscious biases result in many of our choices, but why should EDASC and business and community leaders specifically be concerned about this? How do unconscious biases direct our decisions in hiring, community development, business attraction, retention and expansion, entrepreneurship support, programming, and government and public relations?

Racial Bias

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford University psychology professor and co-founder of SPARQ (Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions), in her comprehensive and extensively researched new book “Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do” (2019), starts with the premise that “You don’t have to be racist to be biased.” Even with the best of intentions, we all to varying degrees have ingrained stereotypes that affect our visual perception, attention, memory, and behavior, resulting in serious consequences.

“Research has made clear that racial bias is also a factor that influences the choices employers make and how minorities fare in the job search and the workplace,” Dr. Eberhardt wrote. The seminal 2003 study of job discrimination in the U.S. labor market by economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan documented the impact of race on the job application process by matching identical resumes with differing names that sounded either typically black or white in applications for job openings. In tallying the responses, Tamika, Keisha, Tyrone and Jamal were 50 percent less likely to get a callback than Geoffrey, Brad, Emily, and Jill, with identical qualifications.

Sadly, companies self-identifying as “equal opportunity employers” were no less likely to discriminate in this manner. This study has been validated by many more in the ensuing years, with a summary analysis revealing that white applicants received 36% more callbacks than black applicants and 24% more than Latinos.

As a result, many minority applicants Anglicized their names, omitted obvious minority affiliations, and added typically “white-sounding” interests. It’s called “Whitening the Resume.” This also happens on Airbnb and other similar places, not only in the business world.

As Dr. Eberhardt points out, neuroimaging studies show that human brains must work harder to process positive information about “out groups” while readily accepting the same from in-group members. This, again, often leads non-white students or job applicants to work hard to seem less foreign, not radical, and more “American”: the classic “assimilative technique.”

College counselors and corporate mentors often validate this technique as a pathway to advancement. Companies that have talked about diversity for a decade or more often want to check the boxes but not change their culture.

The fact is, the employers making these decisions are probably not bigots acting deliberately, but prioritize a comfortable fit rather than differences, so demonstrating racial assimilation and conformity helps minorities find work in white-dominated industries. This work runs counter to the notion held by more than half of white Americans that affirmative action has resulted in pervasive discrimination against white people in the US today.

The research shows minorities and women are held to higher standards than white men also in competing for investment dollars. A SPARQ study looked to the causal role race plays in the investment market, and found that “the more qualified the black-led team appeared to be, the more bias they faced”, being perceived as “less capable of executing on strategy.” The conclusion: “In an investment world that is 99 percent white and male, it may turn out that blacks are turned away not because they are less qualified than white men but because they are equally qualified.”

Gender bias

One of the things that propelled my interest in raising this topic was a couple of comments at a recent International Economic Development Council conference panel.

In one, a respected economic developer noted that “Venture Capital is a young man’s game.” No doubt all the women professionals present wondered where they fit in that equation. In another session, a panelist noted the paramount importance in client relations where you “know your clients’ wives’ names and favorite football team.”

As a male business professional married to a man, I not only do not have a wife but I will also not be particularly impressed by your knowledge of my favorite football team (Seahawks, if you care). There are a thousand more important and relevant things I would want you to know about me first. I not only formed a negative impression of the speaker, fairly or unfairly, as provincial and narrow-minded, but also I felt excluded from his entire sphere.

Bias against women works much the same, where being perceived as “too smart” can be a negative. A sociological study by Natasha Quadlin found that resumes from men with high GPAs generate nearly twice the rate of callbacks as resumes from women with the same grades, and among math majors, the gap is 3:1.

In follow-up interviews, the researcher found that “gendered stereotypes” were the cause. Interviewers valued men for their competence and women for their likeability. We have all experienced incidents where strong-willed men are leaders and outspoken women are “difficult.”

As an illustration, economists Goldin and Rouse examined gender bias in orchestra hiring practices in 2000, and found that (literally) blind auditions where the gender of the candidate was unknown (i.e., hidden behind a curtain) resulted in 50% more women finalists and 33% more women hires.

Our ingrained perceptions affect far more than race and gender: looks, size, accent, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, all are put through the blender of our unconscious perceptions. Was it accidental that the men perceived by an employee as threatening who were removed from a Starbucks by Philadelphia police were black, when white customers present claimed they also were there without ordering anything?

Parenthetically, another study showed that “baby-faced” white men did not fare well in hiring situations, while baby-faced black men did better than black men generally. Researchers concluded that while white men can and should be perceived as commanding and authoritative looking, those qualities in a black man can be perceived by white interviewers as “threatening”, so those baby-faced applicants were judged more favorably.

Starbucks took sweeping action to train its employees in response, and whether completely effective or not, this training was important to support Starbucks’ corporate values of equality and diversity. It also helps make us all aware how our minds work and how stereotypes can cloud perceptions.

Next steps

Understanding, identifying, and addressing implicit bias and how it works is merely the first step. We as economic developers, business and community leaders, and as human beings must figure out how to conquer this bias and its insidious effects. When my colleagues and I discussed this important issue at IEDC’s Annual Conference recently in Indianapolis, we began a discussion that must continue as we work to address pathways to true equality. We talked about some specific methods to dilute the unconscious bias that impacts us all:

  1. First, people have to listen, hear, feel and think with open ears, hearts and minds. This also requires a good deal of empathy to recognize that others not of your group(s) may have experiences, perspectives, and face challenges and discrimination that you do not. It was astonishing to read the results of a Gallup Poll showing that 55% of white people in the US believe most discrimination today is against white people and particularly males. Do you recognize bias against groups to which you do not belong?
  2. Unconscious bias takes place in haste, without time for reflection. Therefore, taking more time to make deliberate, objective, well-considered and documented decisions can mitigate some of the negative impacts. In reviewing resumes, for example, knowing that others will review your decisions and making sure you record in writing your reasons for passing over or favoring an applicant will lead to decisions less riddled with unconscious bias because they will focus on objective standards. Applicants can also put objective numbers and stats in their packages. In addition, hiring managers should use the same questions and standards for all candidates.
  3. In dealing with community members, forging personal connections tends to mitigate the impact of unconscious bias. When we know out-group members personally, our prejudices tend to dissolve. Think how (relatively) quickly attitudes shifted among the general public and policymakers towards LGBTQ people. This happened largely because so many more LGBTQ people starting being open and public so personal connections could override inherent bias.
  4. Avoid in language and in deed assumptions both positive and negative about people and groups. For example, avoid assuming doctors, senators, CEOs, engineers, and pilots are male, and nurses, teachers, and assistants are female. Mix it up! Use pronouns that allow for all eventualities.
  5. The Starbucks issue – they put “let’s talk about race” on their cups and closed for several hours for company-wide training. Does that solve the problem? Of course not. But it gets everyone’s attention, and resets societal norms within the company (perhaps outside too). Revamping company practices can reset norms too, from hiring and managing employees to determining who gets face time with the boss. Think about previous situations where important connections were formed in clubs that were restricted based on gender, race, religion and ethnicity. Monitor job descriptions to make sure there are not implicit gender or other impermissible biases, and remove opportunities to form bias. For example, do not put “he” or “she” alone in a job description. Consider holding phone interviews initially so your subjective perceptions of a person’s outward appearance do not cloud your evaluation of their qualifications.

Most people nowadays see and judge explicit bias. Look at business examples where Papa John’s, Chick-fil-A, and the ABC TV network have generated negative publicity and incurred reputational damage through the founder’s or one actress’s bigoted statements.

These incidents cause monetary damage as well, so companies react now. It is far more difficult, however, to see how stereotypes marginalize the “others” among us. We must believe improvements can be made, and practice empathy for the challenges faced by others that we need to understand. It takes intentional and overt discussion.

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