Using acceptance speeches to further causes is not new. So, it wasn’t particularly surprising that actress Patricia Arquette used her time at the microphone at the Academy Awards last Sunday to implore us all to pay attention to equal rights for all women.
Society’s opportunities for improvement, when it comes to the issue of equal rights in the workplace, are well documented. Stacks of studies outline issues including the glass ceiling, pay equality, and maternal wall bias, or discrimination that occurs against caregivers, and particularly working mothers.
For instance, according to a recent Harvard Business Review study, if a woman has a child, her chances of being hired drop by 79%. If hired, her salary offer is reduced by $11,000 and, once on the job she is half as likely to be promoted as is a childless woman.
While troubling, this is neither new nor surprising.
What is new this week is a study by Tel Aviv University that suggests that unconscious biases of elementary school instructors dramatically affect student academic choices and trajectories later on.
In the research, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, students from sixth grade through the end of high school were given two exams. The first was graded by objective scorers who did not know their names. The second was given by instructors who knew them.
The girls outscored the boys in the test that was scored anonymously, but when graded by the instructors who were familiar with their names, the boys outscored the girls. The research concluded that, in math and science, teachers overestimate boys’ skills and underestimate girls’.
And, when the boys scored higher in math and science, they were encouraged to pursue these fields of study. The girls, conversely, were not encouraged.
Similarly, in a study published this week on gender bias and entrepreneurs, UC – Santa Barbara sociologist Sarah Thébaud found
“The[study] participants systematically rated women-led businesses to be less investment-worthy and less likely to be successful. The participants also rated women to be less skilled and less competent as entrepreneurs than their male counterparts, regardless of the industry of their start-up.”
These studies clearly point to the need for “bias interrupters.”
As a model, consider the popular television series “The Voice.” Judges keep their backs to singing contestants, forcing them to make decisions not on physical traits or gender, but on voice quality. Similarly, the benefits of such blind judging in the workplace could be significant.
Here are a few suggestions to start the “bias interruption” process:
- Acknowledge and seek to better understand your own biases (both conscious and unconscious) about how you behave and make decisions involving others
- Discuss and shine a spotlight on organizational biases (which are most easily identified by those adversely affected by them)
- Redact incoming resumes of names, colleges and other information that the interview team may use to influence their decisions
- Conduct blind tests of incoming applicants to test objective knowledge
- Redact performance reviews of names when evaluating whom to promote
The thing about unconscious bias, be it oriented around gender, ethnicity, age or anything else, is that correcting it is a very slow and arduous undertaking. That’s because, to a degree, it’s simply another facet our personalities at the individual level and culture at the group level. It’s part of what makes us “us”.
At the same time, doing nothing to minimize it isn’t a very good option either. We are much less capable when we don’t create workplace environments that encourage every employee to grow and contribute to his or her full potential.
So how do we tackle this amazing opportunity to become better? With acknowledgement, intent, discipline and patience. As American anthropologist Margaret Mead said many years ago,
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Please share a comment on this piece if you use these strategies or others to help challenge bias in your workplace.