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Mitigate Bias Through Action

Good leaders and managers know that biases and stereotypes must be overcome, and they intentionally work at dismantling these beliefs to prevent them from influencing decision-making. Research suggests that awareness of bias is not enough and that making people aware of biases and stereotypes can, in fact, strengthen them. In studies where half of the individuals were told that stereotypes were common and half that they were rare, those who read that stereotypes were common were more likely to rate women as significantly less career-oriented and more family-oriented; were less interested in hiring a woman candidate; and rated women as less likable. It is as if learning that everyone else is biased means we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves. The solution isn’t to stop pointing out stereotypes. Instead, we need to communicate that these biases are undesirable and unacceptable and provide solutions for combating these biases. And indeed, when the researchers told participants that the vast majority of people try to overcome their stereotypic preconceptions, discrimination disappeared.

Research also shows that seeing positive images of underrepresented groups can temporarily change unconscious bias thoughts about those groups. Additionally, working with diverse groups in a structured setting to solve shared problems can dramatically alter people’s attitudes about diversity. We all have biases, but we must make efforts to become self-aware of those biases, communicate that they are unacceptable, and actively interrupt the effect of bias and stereotyping on behavior and decision-making.

Overcoming conscious and unconscious bias often requires intentional, structural interventions. An excellent example is from a study on the hiring practices of American symphony orchestras. In the 1970s and 1980s, most orchestras revised their audition practices with the explicit aim of preventing biased hiring. One major change involved the use of “blind” auditions with a screen to conceal the identity of the candidate from the jury. Using data from actual auditions, economists from Harvard and Princeton found that the use of a screen increased the likelihood that a woman advanced out of preliminary rounds by 50%, and also increased the likelihood that a woman candidate would be hired (the percentage of women among new orchestra hires increased from 10% to 35% from before 1970 to the 1990s). Extending these principles to the corporate worlds, to counteract bias an organization, one might consider implementing a requirement of diverse hiring slates for all job openings, review job descriptions for bias language, or a blind resume review with a diverse search committee and standardized practices to evaluate applicants. These types of structural interventions can counterbalance any individual bias that may be operating.

To be inclusive we must build our awareness of our cultural lens that we see the world through and get into the habit of questioning, testing, and challenging our assumptions about others, and assessing whether they are fair. When we hone these skills we are able to overcome our biases. Furthermore, by role-modeling this skill set of self-questioning and surfacing assumptions, we can influence others to act in a similar manner.

Contact us to learn more ways you can foster an inclusive workplace.