Organizations have the power to reduce unconscious bias

By Ramit Mizrahi

As I explained last week, unconscious biases harm women in the workplace. Rather than just putting the burden on women to navigate around biases, organizations should be focusing on fixing the problem.

Many people assume that it will take years, if not decades, to reduce the effects of biases because we must fundamentally transform how people think. But psychologists have identified at least six concrete steps that can alter the decision-making environment to reduce the impact of implicit biases in the short term. Each of these can be utilized in the workplace to create immediate improvements.

1.  Block biases by withholding identifying information.

When decision-makers are kept ignorant of the identifying characteristics of individuals (called blinding), they are prevented from acting based on stereotypes. For example, many orchestras conduct auditions behind a screen to conceal the musicians’ identities.  It has been estimated that this process leads to a 50% increase in women making it past the preliminary round, and a 30 to 55% increase in the proportion of female hires.

2.  Raise consciousness about bias whenever decisions are being made.

People discriminate less when stereotypes and group categories are made salient.  It may be than when we are conscious of commonly held stereotypes, we can actively work to avoid falling prey to them. Organizations should have open discussions about the effects of unintentional biases prior to making hiring and other employment decisions. The Implicit Association Test (IAT), a test used to help identify implicit biases, can also be used as a consciousness-raising tool to help people explore their implicit biases.

3.  Establish objective criteria whenever possible.

Research has shown that the more ambiguous criteria and subjectivity are allowed in making a decision, the more likely that unintentional bias can influence the process. Objective criteria should be established in advance to ensure that people are being judged on the appropriate measures.

4.  Give the decision-maker enough time and information to make decisions.

When people are distracted or under time pressure, they are more likely to fall back on ethnic and gender stereotypes to make decisions. Without adequate information, they tend to fill in the gaps with biased assumptions.  Organizations can correct for these tendencies by providing more time and information.

5.  Expand the “in-group” to include traditionally stereotyped people.

Some psychologists have concluded that the disparity between the ratings of in-group and out-group members stems more from a preference for in-group members than from a dislike of out-group members. Studies show that if people recognize a person as an in-group member (college alumni, from the same city, favors the same sports team… anything), they are less likely to focus on the other differences that make the person an outsider. So, for example, a company can create camaraderie among “teams” so that people relate to each other as members of the same group.

6.  Integrate workplaces and put women and minorities in positions of authority.

This is the ultimate solution. We know that the mere presence of a person can reduce stereotyping against her group. In fact, a whole body of research has shown that intergroup contact can reduce biases. However, if there are only one or two token women (or people of color) in positions of authority, others may simply write them off as exceptions to the rule. Women are not immune to these biases. Only when there is a number so large that they cannot be written off as exceptions will pre-existing stereotypes be fundamentally altered. Thus, the more numerous women are, the less biases affect judgments of them.

Two studies discussed in Virginia Valian’s book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, reflect this point. In the first, 486 blue-collar and clerical work groups evaluated the performance of both men and women. When women consisted of less than 20% of a group, they were rated much lower than the men. When they were between 20% percent and 50% of the workforce, they were still rated lower than the men, though less so. But when women constituted 50% or more of the groups, they were rated more highly than males. The second study found that when women were 25% or less of an applicant pool, they were evaluated more negatively than when they made up 37.5% or more of a pool. In addition, the fewer women there were in the applicant pool, the more likely they were to be perceived as stereotypically feminine (i.e., unambitious, emotional, indecisive).

These studies lend force to the argument that a critical mass of women can suppress – or even alter – the implicit associations between sex and ability that lead people to judge women less favorably than they deserve. A critical mass of 20% has been proposed to break stereotypes. The more women we have in positions of authority, the less they will be harmed by unconscious biases. Reaching and surpassing this critical mass should be a top goal for employers committed to equal opportunity.

Since implicit associations affect the decision making of even the most well-intentioned people, biases will continue to permeate our workplaces unless employers take action.  Much has been written about what women can do in the short term to not be victimized by bias. The time has come for employers to “lean in” and take decisive action to prevent these biases from manifesting in the first place.

Ramit Mizrahi

About Ramit Mizrahi

Ramit Mizrahi, the founder of Mizrahi Law, APC, practices in the area of employment law, representing employees exclusively. Her work focuses on cases involving discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave law issues, and wrongful termination. She is a graduate of Yale Law School, The London School of Economics, and UC-Berkeley.

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