The Bias You Dont See Graphic

The Bias You Don’t See

Implicit bias affects many facets of everyday life, especially in the workplace.

 Two people apply for the same job. Both candidates submit résumés with similar educational backgrounds and work experience. One candidate is named Greg; the other is named Jamal. Guess who’s more likely to get a callback about the open position?

Greg. It’s not even close, and it’s just one example of how implicit bias can lead to—oftentimes unintentional—discrimination in the workplace.

From hiring and promotions to training and mentoring, implicit bias around issues of race, gender, age, ability, religion, and more pervade decision making large and small. While many companies have taken steps to address explicit discrimination in business settings, much work remains to address the bias we don’t see.

What is implicit bias?

mother and child

With implicit bias, as opposed to explicit bias, our subconscious holds biases that we’re often not aware of.bias in workplace infographic

These attitudes can span across issues of race, gender identity or expression, religion, age, socioeconomic status, weight, and much more. They ultimately affect the choices we make and the reactions we have to the people around us in various settings.

Take parental status, for example. “A woman might say she has to leave a meeting early to go pick up her kid, and subconsciously some people may be thinking, ‘you can’t be a working professional and a mom at the same time,’” says Donald E. Grant Jr., Psy.D., executive director of Pacific Oaks College’s Center for Community & Social Impact. “But if a dad does the same thing, people may be thinking, ‘Oh, what a great guy!’ It’s the same action, but it’s because of misogyny, explicit or not, that a woman triggers that response. And it has an effect—the woman might instead choose to pay a dollar a minute for being late to her child care provider.”

Research supports this anecdote. One study found that when comparing equally qualified job candidates that only differed on parental status “mothers were penalized on a host of measures, including perceived competence and recommended starting salary.”

Further research demonstrates how implicit bias can ultimately affect the demographics and culture of an entire company or organization. Typically, white individuals and males are given preference in hiring and promotions, and being tall or blonde tends to literally pay off throughout a career. Even a person’s name, as shown in the previous example, can have an effect on career outcomes. The aptly titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?” research paper found that “white” names elicited a 30% higher callback rate.

Valerie Coachman-Moore, M.P.H., is a member of Pacific Oaks’ Board of Trustees and the president and CEO of Coachman Moore & Associates, a firm highly regarded for its approaches to community engagement, strategic planning, program implementation, and executive coaching. She discusses her own experience of others’ biases.

“When I am with others who work in my industry, I am regularly offended by their judgment and biases toward me—some of which have negatively impacted business and my bottom line over the years,” Coachman-Moore says. “Oftentimes, it seems as though it is assumed I can speak for all black people. This is especially disheartening. Organizational leaders often redirect causation when addressing or trying to remedy particular workplace issues. The effort to get to the root cause(s) of implicit bias is complex and dynamic and requires considerable time and resources to deconstruct.”

Coachman-Moore also discusses an additional frustration in the fight against implicit bias—the absence of opportunities for legal recourse because of the lack of tangible evidence proving discrimination.

“It can be alienating and cause some people to feel marginalized and unable to render the best to an organization or group. In many cases, they work extra hard to succeed,” Coachman-Moore says. “Without built-in workplace supports, it can be very tough, but it’s important to continue seeking out peers whom you can speak to and other resources that can help you better understand how to navigate these kinds of environments. It can be done.”

Reprogramming our brains

Implicit bias is a result of the way our brains have evolved to naturally work, specifically when it comes to the decision-making process. Our brains can consciously process only around 40 items per second but as many as 11 million unconsciously. Rather than shutting down, our brain relies on shortcuts—biases—to help make quick decisions, grouping and categorizing the things and people we encounter.

One group has been furthering the study of bias and the subconscious. In 1998, three scientists founded Project Implicit with the goal of “educating the public about hidden biases and to provide a virtual laboratory for collecting data on the internet.” The nonprofit organization is most famous for developing the publicly available Implicit Association Test, which helps identify an individual’s potential implicit bias across a range of categories such as race, age, weight, and religion. For companies and individuals hoping to address the issue of implicit bias, the test represents step one. Beyond recognizing existing biases, ongoing training and increased awareness are essential to helping our brains basically reprogram.

“It’s not so much about the test. It’s about recognizing and assuming one’s own frailty and stepping into it,” Coachman-Moore says. “It’s about stepping into that vulnerability and that place of recognition that you need to change—recognizing one’s own power and privilege. You’re exposing yourself when you do that. It’s not easy, but it has to be done, specifically within the context of organizations.”

Woman clappingAn article by True Office Learning, a compliance training and analytics company, makes the case for organizations to make greater efforts in formalizing this type of regular training.

“The deep-set habit of grouping and labeling people can only be disrupted by bringing these instinctual reactions into conscious awareness and then developing new neural pathways for responding differently at the point of critical decision-making,” the article explains. “Through situational practice and reinforcement, guided by continual assessment of retention and improvement, learners can build ‘muscle memory’ for reacting thoughtfully, not reflexively, the next time they are faced with a decision that might be susceptible to implicit bias.”

Beyond the ethical argument for a company to integrate training programs that help employees recognize and address implicit bias, there are potential financial incentives from the resulting increased diversity of a workforce.

A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean.

In 2018, 20% of large U.S. companies were already providing implicit bias training for employees, and 50% of large U.S. companies planned to offer it over the next five years.

“The best approaches have multiple prongs,” Coachman-Moore says. “When one begins to unpack things, often people in organizations will find the issue they think needs to be addressed isn’t actually the issue. Organizational leaders really need to carve out time to be capable of doing this. And in the cases where implicit bias really leads to grave harm—like with law enforcement and racial profiling, someone not being able to get a job, or being denied the mentoring that would otherwise be available to them—outside experts or consultants could prove to be a valuable resource as well.”

Pacific Oaks College’s new B.S. in Business Administration program is a reflection of the growing demand for these types of experts. The program’s goal is to infuse Pacific Oaks foundational values of inclusion and social justice into a curriculum that nurtures socially conscious business professionals capable of addressing pertinent issues—such as implicit bias—within modern organizations.

Companies have come a long way in working to break down the barriers posed by prejudice and bias. However, to continue this positive momentum and build workplace cultures that are more consciously inclusive, the subconscious actions of organizational leaders need to reflect these efforts. By better understanding the concept of implicit bias and its role in the workplace, companies will continue to move in the right direction.

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