Discrimination comes in all forms. In our 2011 entry on the dismissal of an EEOC suit against Bloomberg, we noted that Karen Lockwood, a senior female partner in Howrey, a Washington D.C. firm and then president of the D.C. Women’s Bar Association, made a distinction between discrimination and unconscious bias: “Law firms are way beyond discrimination… Problems with advancement and retention are grounded in biases, not discrimination.”
Discrimination is overt, explicit and legally actionable, while bias is implicit and often unconscious, covertly undermining the actions and opinions of some of the most overtly committed supporters of diversity.
In an article last week in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Do You Know Your Hidden Work Biases,” a vice-president at BAE Systems Inc., a major defense contractor, admitted she might have made less than optimal decisions because of missed input from introverts–she favors more talkative personalities.
The article contended that “big businesses are teaching staffers to recognize that ‘unconscious bias’—or an implicit preference for certain groups—often influences important workplace decisions,” and that a “growing number of U.S. corporations offer training programs aimed at overcoming these hidden biases. As many as 20% of large U.S. employers with diversity programs now provide unconscious-bias training, up from 2% five years ago, and that figure could hit 50% in five years.”
“It’s a blind spot,” as the head of one diversity consultancy explained. One that is “the most requested and popular diversity topic now.”
The list of companies willing to pay a typical one-day cost averaging $2,000 to $6,000 for 50 people to become better educated about their biases include Dow Chemical Co. (for 800 managers), Google Inc. (for 13,000 of their staffers), Pfizer Inc., PricewaterhouseCoopers and Microsoft (for 2,000 managers). There have been some noticeable results. Dow saw the number of women in professional positions rise to 32.4% from 29.7% after the training.
The Implied Association Test. Unconscious-bias training arose from research by University of Washington psychology professor Tony Greenwald and his development in 1994 of the Implied Association Test, where you can join 15 million others who have taken it since its introduction in testing your biases.
What could we possibly learn from an unconscious bias test? That we favor whites (the most common bias), men, the well-dressed, even those from the same schools and parts of the country as we are from?
Scary Faces. Neuroscientific research regarding the amygdala, the primitive part of the brain, shows that even those who are cognitively convinced that they are not biased exhibit sub-cognitive, physical signs of distress—faster heart beat, increased perspiration, elevated blood pressure—when images of faces of a different race are flashed on a screen even for a few hundredths of a second (faster than cognitive recognition), which is the same reaction they exhibit to images of spiders, snakes and angry or frightening faces.
Different Sounds. Ranier Kuchl, the concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, once spoke for many professionals in the classical music field when he said he could instantly tell the difference with his eyes closed between the sound produced by a male and female musician. This was particularly thought to be true of those playing “male” instruments, such as tubas, trombones and French horns, which, the theory went, required the greater lung power of a man.
In spite of this general conviction that the genders “sounded differently,” over the past thirty years the introduction of screens and other rules to assure anonymity have become standard in music auditioning. During the same time, the number of women in the top US orchestras has increased five-fold. The first time new audition rules were in place for the Metropolitan Opera orchestra in New York, all of the four new positions were awarded to women, more than doubling the number of women at that time in the entire orchestra.
What can be done about this “below the radar” bias? Test-taker racial bias on the Implicit Association Test is dramatically reduced after exposure to images and stores of minority success. For example, test takers who spent the day watching African-Americans excel in the Olympics then registered less unconscious bias on the test against African-Americans’ career and social success.
This finding makes it evident how important increased awareness and exposure to minority role models throughout society are in reshaping our unconscious biases. It also highlights the importance of supportive company/ firm communications and “positive self-talk” both by minorities and the people they work with with respect to differences.
One interesting aspect to the BAE vice-president’s acknowledged bias is that it is against introverts–not a disadvantaged race or gender but a personal work style. Introverts would include most lawyers, by the way, who may find themselves in turn consciously or unconsciously biased against their chattier colleagues. In our experience, personal style bias is one of the most entrenched and hard to re-educate discriminations.
The BAE vice-president says that as a result of training she has begun giving her staffers advance notice about difficult meeting topics “so there will be more time for the more introspective folks to assimilate their thoughts” and also hopes to switch to “blind” résumés without an applicant’s name or address. Both great measures for acknowledging and proactively dealing with what would otherwise be unconscious biases.
Because the thing about blind spots is that you can’t see them.