Unfortunately, our “post-racial” society isn’t post-bias

Unfortunately, our “post-racial” society isn’t post-bias

By Amy Semmel


According to a recent study by MTV, the majority of millennials believe that they live in a “post-racial” society.  They cite Barack Obama’s presidency as a great achievement for race relations.  Having a black President even influenced a majority of the study participants to believe that people of color have the same opportunities as white people.  Unfortunately, employment statistics say otherwise. Since 1972 –when the Federal Reserve began collecting separate unemployment data for African-Americans — the black unemployment rate has stubbornly remained at least 60% higher than the white unemployment rate. The gender pay gap has barely budged in a decade, with full-time women employees being paid 78% of what men were paid.  And the gap is worse for women of color, with Hispanic women laboring at the bottom, with only 54% of white men’s earnings. 70% of Google employees are male, with only 2% Black, 3% Latino, and 30% Asian. This from the company whose motto is “Do no Evil.” How can this be? While overt racism or sexism is rarer today in corporate America, implicit biases linger.

Source: Google Official Blog - googleblog.blogspot.com

Source: Google Official Blog – googleblog.blogspot.com

Imagine that you are supervisor, with two virtually identical resumes on your desk.  Both candidates are equally qualified.  Do you gravitate toward the one with a white Anglo-Saxon name (think “Emily” or “Brendan”), or a name more likely to belong to an African-American (think “Lakisha” or “Jamal”)? Aware of their bias or not, hiring managers are 50% more likely to call the applicant with the white-sounding name in for an interview.  There is a growing body of research like this that proves that implicit bias is real and is having real-life consequences for people who are considered “other” in terms of race, disability, sexual orientation and other characteristics. (There are even on-line tests you can take to find out about your own implicit biases.)  But even as our understanding of how implicit bias leads to discrimination grows, judges often fail to recognize that discrimination can result from unconscious stereotypes or subtle preferences for people similar to oneself—perhaps today even more than overt bigotry.  To truly provide equal opportunity for all, social science research into how people actually behave in the workplace must inform the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.

Amy Semmel

About Amy Semmel

Ms. Semmel devotes her practice to eradicating discrimination and retaliation in the workplace. She advocates for employees seeking remedies for retaliation for whistleblowing, discrimination and wage theft. Ms. Semmel is frequently invited to speak at conferences and seminars throughout the state. Subjects on which she has spoken include discovery issues in employment litigation; liability of successor, electronic discovery, alter ego and joint employers; the Private Attorney General Act, and developments in wage and hour law.

Organizations have the power to reduce unconscious bias

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.

Fifty years after sex discrimination became illegal, the focus is still on how women behave instead of changing organizations to eliminate gender bias 3

Fifty years after sex discrimination became illegal, the focus is still on how women behave instead of changing organizations to eliminate gender bias

programmerBy Ramit Mizrahi

Women: “Lean in.” “Be more confident.” “Ask for a raise, but do it in a way that is ‘feminine’ so you don’t come off as demanding or unlikeable.”

We’ve had a surge of self-help articles and books telling women how to navigate a biased system. But, fifty years after sex discrimination was first made illegal, shouldn’t the focus be on how to stop the bias in the first place?

In this two-part series, I’ll first discuss how implicit biases harm women in the workplace and then cover some of the steps we can take to reduce bias.

Identifying the Problem

Many male managers believe that the glass ceiling has been shattered. This opinion, however, is not shared by their female counterparts, who know from experience that sex discrimination is alive and well in the workplace. While overt discrimination has been on the decline for the past half-century, subtle forms of discrimination are still pervasive. This is especially true in high-level jobs where criteria for advancement are more subjective. Even well-meaning executives make judgments and take actions that reflect stereotypes and implicit attitudes that disadvantage female candidates for promotion.

In the past 20 years, there has been an explosion of research about what has come to be called cognitive or implicit bias. It all begins with the research proving that even the best-intentioned people harbor biases. This is true of men and woman of all ages and races; no one is immune. It’s not that we set out to judge women or minorities more harshly or treat them less favorably. What happens instead is that our internalized stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups of people end up influencing our judgments and evaluations without us realizing it.

As psychologist Virginia Valian has explained in her book Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women,

“A woman does not walk into the room with the same status as an equivalent man, because she is less likely than a man to be viewed as a serious professional.”

People hold gendered expectations, and women who don’t meet them are viewed as less capable. For example, if asked to visualize a computer programmer, for example, one will likely think of a man (probably “geeky” and younger); someone who doesn’t fit that image will then be at a disadvantage as people wonder if she’s “as good.”

When a man succeeds, his success is seen as confirmation of his innate ability, whereas a woman’s success is often attributed to luck or simplicity of the task. When she fails, however, her failure is seen as reflection of her (lack of) ability.

It gets even more complicated when assessing leadership, particularly in jobs that are perceived as masculine. Male leaders may be judged better than female leaders who are equally effective, but who lead with a less aggressive style. Attitudes about proper gender roles positively affect performance evaluations for leaders who conform to gender norms, and negatively affect performance evaluations of women who are engaged in nontraditional employment.

Gender norms can produce a double-bind effect. In some work environments women must speak more (or louder) than men if they want to get their ideas noticed, but when they do, they are derided as pushy. In problem-solving situations social scientists have observed that women get more negative facial expressions from both male and female peers, and are perceived less positively than men, even when they follow the same script as males.

Even “neutral” evaluators can be affected. When observing a woman struggling to be heard by others, receiving negative facial expressions, and having her points ignored, outside evaluators may attribute the reaction of peers to the woman’s lesser ability, or to her bossiness, rather than to gender bias. Professor Valian describes how people who would never endorse overt “statements such as, ‘Women do not command respect from their subordinates,’ may nevertheless feel comfortable saying, ‘Lee does not command respect from her subordinates.’ The latter comment is just a ‘fact’ about Lee, arrived at through impartial and fair observation.”

While each such instance on its own may be considered inconsequential, over the course of a woman’s career, they combine to undermine career success.

Subtle biases can lead to huge differences in how people are treated based on their perceived sex. In a 2012 study, Yale-based researchers sought to explore differences in how science faculty from large research universities rate applications for a lab manager position based on the perceived sex of the applicant. They sent 127 volunteer professors from six research institutions the application of an undergraduate science student who had applied for a lab manager position. Each of the professors received the same materials, except that some were randomly assigned the name of a female student while others were assigned a male name. They were asked to rate the student’s competence and hireability, as well as the amount of salary and mentoring they would offer the student.

The results were startling:

  • — The female student was deemed less competent (on a 5-point scale as with the other measures in this study, rated 3.33 by male faculty and 3.32 by female faculty as compared to the male rated 4.01 and 4.1).
  • — The female student was deemed less hirable (rated 2.96 by male faculty and 2.84 by female faculty as compared to the male rated 3.74 and 3.92).
  • — The female student was offered a mean starting salary of $26,507.94 as compared to $30,238.10 offered to the male student.
  • — The female student was offered less mentoring (a rating of 4.0 by male faculty and 3.91 by female faculty as compared to the male rated 4.74 and 4.73).
  • — The female student was evaluated as being more likeable, but that did not translate into positive perceptions of her competence of benefits in terms of a job offer, a higher salary, or more mentoring.

These results were consistent across gender, age, scientific discipline, and tenure status. The researchers concluded that faculty gender bias, unconscious and unintended, impedes women’s full participation in science.

Similar effects were observed in another study that focused on race. In a study targeting the legal profession, researchers enlisted five law partners to draft a memo on trade secret issues that would be presented as if written by a third-year litigation associate. They deliberately inserted 22 errors (including spelling, grammar, technical writing, factual, and analytical errors). Sixty law firm partners of different backgrounds were recruited to participate in a “writing analysis study,” and asked to review the legal memo written by “Thomas Meyer.” Half were told that the author was a white associate and half were told he was black.

Stark differences resulted in the assessments:

  • — On average, partners found 2.9 of the 7 spelling grammar in white Thomas’s memo as compared to 5.8 of the errors in African-American Thomas’s memo.
  • — Partners found an average of 4.1 of the 6 technical writing errors in white Thomas’s memo as compared to 4.9 in African-American Thomas’s memo.
  • — Partners found an average of 3.2 of the 5 errors in facts in white Thomas’s memo as compared to 3.9 in African-American Thomas’s memo.
  • — Partners provided 11 edits or comments on formatting for white Thomas while making 29 for African-American Thomas.
  • — Partners described white Thomas as someone who “has potential” with “good analytical skills” and a “generally good writer but needs to work on. . . .”
  • — They described African-American Thomas as follows: “needs lots of work,” “can’t believe he went to NYU,” and “average at best.”
  • — These biases were found across the spectrum of sex, race, and other traits.

The authors’ analysis is on point:

“When expecting to find fewer errors, we find fewer errors. When expecting to find more errors, we find more errors. That is unconscious confirmation bias. Our evaluators unconsciously found more of the errors in the “African American” Thomas Meyer’s memo, but the final rating process was a conscious and unbiased analysis based on the number of errors found. When partners say that they are evaluating assignments without bias, they are probably right in believing that there is no bias in the assessment of the errors found; however, if there is bias in the finding of the errors, even a fair final analysis cannot, and will not, result in a fair result.”

So what do we do? First, we must stop pretending to be sex blind, color blind, or blind to any other differences. Despite our best intentions, we are not. In fact, research has shown that people who most value fairness and objectivity are particularly likely to fall prey to biases, in part because they are not on guard against them.

This is not an easy task.  Fifty years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we can all agree that intentionally discriminating against someone because of her sex or race is an act that is morally reprehensible as well as illegal. But can we equally embrace the lesson learned from years of social science research into implicit bias – that we all harbor biases? Unless and until individuals and organizations are willing to grapple with this uncomfortable truth, we will be unable to dismantle these hidden barriers head on.

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.

%d bloggers like this: