Unconscious Bias: Diversity’s Real Enemy

By Sangita Kasturi: Do you make hiring decisions based on the name on the resume’ ? Or feel that high performing women are too abrasive? Of course not! At least not consciously. But unconsciously, well, that’s another story. Certain names sound more “competent”to us, certain looks can invoke fear and someone’s accent can determine whether we willpromote them. And just to illustrate how unaware we can be about what’s really driving our decisions, Yale psychologist, John Bargh has demonstrated that we even tend to think more favorably of strangers when we are holding a warm beverage.

What’s In A Name?
According to a study of bias in hiring, applicants with white-sounding names, like Emily, Brendan, Brad or Kristen, were nearly 50 percent more likely to be called for interviews than those with black-sounding names including Tamika, Latoya, Aisha, Rasheed, Tremayne and Jamal. This means that individuals with certain names may never even get a chance to present themselves or must submit that many more applications before landing a job in the first place.

What About Gender?
Research corroborates evidence that we are uncomfortable with women whose behavior may not align with our definition of femininity. As a result, women whose behavior is inconsistent with gendered expectations tend to judged more harshly in performance evaluations, asked to be less abrasive or step back and let others shine much more so than their male counterparts. In fact, the words like bossy, abrasive, strident and aggressive were used significantly more times to describe women than men, regardless of the gender of the person giving the review.

But I’m Completely Rational and Objective… Right?
The immediate problem is that we are largely unconscious of our own discriminatory behaviors. In fact, we are likely to look for “rational” explanations for our decisions – “He wasn’t a good fit” or “She is just too abrasive.” The biases themselves, come from messages we have internalized over many years – messages from popular culture, family, friends, beliefs and more about what is good, what is bad, what a leader looks like, how men/women are supposed to behave… And since the biases are deeply embedded into our overall understanding of culture, it is difficult to tease them out.

Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test is designed to help you uncover exactly that – our hidden preferences or biases that might be in stark opposition to the principles and beliefs that you are more conscious of. The premise is, of course, that we are all biased by virtue of being human but we can also do something about it.

It Takes a Real Commitment
For organizations, this means there is much work to be done in terms of acknowledging the potential for bias in all aspects of our workplace including the way we hire, evaluate and promote our employees – and doing something about it. But it takes courageous conversation and a real commitment to diversity to do so. The good news is that there are many things an organization can do to raise awareness and mitigate the effects of unconscious bias.

Sangita Kasturi is the CEO of Action Inclusion, driving organizations to transform how they hire, retain and promote women and people of color. Leveraging global insights across multiple industries, we help build the momentum to maximize existing talent, build new talent and equip leaders with the skills to leverage diversity and create a high-performing, inclusive workplace through strategies and workshops. For more go to www.ActionInclusion.org or email skasturi@ActionInclusion.org. Follow us on Twitter.

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