Uncovering Unconscious Bias

UCR Heidi Cuthbertson 2017by Heidi Cuthbertson
Associate Director, Graduate Career Development Center
The A. Gary Anderson Graduate School of Management
University of California, Riverside

I have worked in higher education for eleven years, and in human resources as a recruiter for seven. After nearly two decades, I clearly have a thorough understanding of the importance of diversity in the workplace at all levels. I know that a diverse team leads to more robust ideas and greater success. And of course, I would never, ever discriminate based on an individual’s extraneous characteristics. Right? Or have I been kidding myself for all these years?!?!

Last week’s MBA CSEA webinar, Overcoming Biases to Advance the Underrepresented Workforce: Understanding Unconscious Bias, was jarring to say the least. Two expert researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, Leeds School of Business who specialize in the topic, Dr. Stefanie Johnson and Dr. David Hekman, shared data proving that even the most well-intended professional can be impacted by biases that we don’t even know we have.

Like it or not, everyone’s behavior is influenced in some way by preconceived ideas about an individual’s age, gender, education level, profession, ethnicity, and so on. Take a look at a few statistics from their research, which focused on gender and ethnicity bias in the workplace:

  • If three of the four candidates in a hiring pool are men, the woman has statistically 0% chance of being selected.
  • In the S&P 500, 9.8% of CEOs are men named John and David. Women make up only 4.1% of all CEOs (even though women make up 50% of the population).
  • 56% of men think that sexism is OVER. This is not old data – this study was from 2016! Last year!

That’s the cold, hard reality. OK, good to know. But what can we do about it?

Hold BLIND auditions! Seriously, can companies really transform their hiring processes to resemble The Voice? As Dr. Hekman shared, blind auditions in orchestras have resulted in an increase in female positions from less than 5% to more than 30%. Blind reviews of scientific articles led to significant increases in women-authored publications. Why couldn’t blind selection in the hiring process, at least at the resume review phase, move the needle?

TALK about diversity! Dr. Johnson’s research shows that simply by acknowledging differences, the effect of bias can be reduced. Don’t pretend the diversity doesn’t exist, but face it head-on. The conversation alone can diminish any negative effects.

Hold people accountable! To quote Dr. Johnson, “Bias is less prevalent when you are accountable and more prevalent if you think others agree with you.” Companies that report, track and share diversity data and lead from the top are less likely to be impacted by individual inclinations.

During the Q&A, I asked Dr. Hekman about best practices to carry this discussion into our graduate business schools. The students we mentor every day will be the future business leaders of our world. He suggested holding open conversations about exclusion and differences and referred to this impactful video as an example of how a conversation can change someone’s perspective. After all, who among us has never felt excluded? The truth is that EVERYONE has encountered this at some point in time.

My main takeaway from this webinar was the need to infuse our business schools with conversations about bias. If our students can carry with them into the workplace a greater understanding of their own unconscious preferences, and project that mindset to classmates, colleagues and employees, it could be a path to change.

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