Several weeks ago, I was talking with a friend and catching up on what was going on in her life. She shared with me some of the challenges she was having in finding full-time employment. It had been more than three years since she was laid off, and she now found herself in the category of the underemployed. This meant that she was working in a position where she was not only overqualified, but underpaid.
Over the course of these three years, she has had numerous interviews. She frequently received positive feedback after interviews and had been told that she was among the top candidates, only to find out that she did not get the position. This was beginning to take a financial and emotional toll.
We discussed everything from her qualifications to her appearance. And it occurred to us that perhaps the reason she had been unable to secure a comparable position was that she did not fit “the part” — she was nearly 50 years old and overweight. I know this sounds shallow and may seem hard to believe. However, it was the proverbial elephant in the room that needed to be discussed.
After our conversation, I began thinking about how biases impact our profession and what we can do about it. First, let’s define bias. There are two basic types of biases — explicit or conscious, and implicit or unconscious. These types of biases exist beyond the obvious forms of race and gender. Bias can extend to age, religion, sexual orientation or weight, to name a few.
Unconscious bias as described by the University of California, San Francisco, Office of Diversity and Outreach is “prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person or group compared with another, usually in a way that’s considered to be unfair. Biases may be held by an individual, group or institution and can have negative or positive consequences.” Additionally, unconscious prejudice occurs more often than conscious bias. And although some are reluctant to admit it, we all hold certain unconscious beliefs about certain individuals and groups.
The good thing is that, although it is difficult, unconscious bias is not fixed and can be reshaped.
For example, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan studied unconscious bias in hiring practices in their report, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?” The researchers selected help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago and randomly assigned white-sounding or black-sounding names to resumes. The outcome: Resumes with white-sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than those with black-sounding names.
So much for getting your foot in the door. Although this is only one example of unconscious bias, there are plenty of others. How many potential advisors or corporate leaders have not been given an opportunity or promotion because of their age, name or appearance?
According to the report “The Real Effects of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace,” several unconscious biases present in the workplace are:
1. Affinity bias — the propensity to favor individuals like oneself.
2. Halo effect — the tendency to give a person the benefit of the doubt because you like them.
3. Perception bias — the predisposition to form stereotypes and presumptions about groups that prevents you from coming to an unbiased conclusion about members of those groups.
4. Confirmation bias — the propensity of individuals to look for information that affirms pre-existing assumptions or beliefs.
5. Group think — occurs when individuals go above and beyond to assimilate into a particular group, and do not fully express themselves. This is particularly detrimental to the workplace in that it impedes innovation and creativity of the overall organization.
The University of California, San Francisco, Office of Diversity and Outreach provides strategies for addressing unconscious bias. They encourage using both individual and institutional strategies that include 1) self-awareness, 2) recognizing the nature of bias, 3) open dialogue with others (especially people from different groups), and 4) facilitated discussions and sessions supporting bias training.
If we are going to create a more diverse profession that is committed to recruiting and developing talent, we must address the issue of unconscious bias and how to deal with it effectively. Gerard J. Holder, author of Hidden Bias: How Unconscious Attitudes on Diversity Undermine Organizations and What to Do About It, emphasizes that our prejudices are learned behaviors and added, “It’s a learning process that has to be done over a period of time, not a training that can be done in three hours.”
Jocelyn Wright is the chair of the State Farm Center for Women and Financial Services at The American College. Jocelyn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.