How does unconscious bias work? Our brains create shortcuts so that we don’t have to constantly think about every decision and action. Through the act of priming, we absorb what we see and hear, and file it away in our brain’s library. Can you believe that priming starts around the age of 3? When we approach situations, our brains go through our library’s filing cabinets to gather all information related to the situation. In most cases, this information leads to a series of actions. Think about it…How many times have you gotten in your car to drive home and before you know it, you’re pulling into your driveway? If you’re anything like me, you don’t remember making any turns, stopping at lights, or changing lanes! Our brains have learned which turns to make, when to stop, and how to navigate the roads! You’ve driven the same route and it has become ingrained in your memory. Your brain pulls from this ingrained knowledge to function without you even knowing it!
The same thing happens when we approach unfamiliar people. Picture this: You are walking down the street in your neighborhood when you cross paths with someone you’ve never seen before. Your brain immediately goes through your library’s filing cabinet to determine if you should fight or flight, stay or go, be nice or be neutral. Based on your previous experience or exposure, your brain will facilitate your behavior. Let’s say you’ve were once robbed walking down the street. Your brain absorbed that experience and filed it away in the library. In the event that you encounter an experience similar to the one that led to you getting robbed, your brain will tell your legs to run! Fortunately, our brains take over to help us avoid dangerous situations.
The problem occurs when our brains have been fed inaccurate information during the priming stage! If you’ve never been robbed, but have seen news reports, tv shows, and movies showing black men with hoodies robbing elderly white women, your brain absorbed that information and filed it away for later use. Unless you’ve fed your brain a counter image of black men, either through your personal experience or on television, your brain will tell you that black men are dangerous. We all know that being ‘dangerous’ is not associated with a particular race or gender, but nevertheless, our brains draw that conclusion before we have a chance to think about it logically. In other words, our brains have learned to have a bias against black men because of the information that it has absorbed.
There’s a lot of unconscious thinking going on in our brains. There are over 120 different biases that all work together to help our brain function without consuming much energy. Biases aren’t to be feared, but to be overcome if they don’t logically align with what we know to be true. Implementing ‘Bias Interrupters’ help us move from unconscious bias to conscious thinking. Bias Interrupters are roadblocks that cause us to pause momentarily and think about our thinking! Think of them as speedbumps or caution signs that make you slow down and be more aware of your surroundings.
Bias Interrupters can be broken down into two main categories: Technology interrupters and people interrupters. Technology is becoming smarter, especially since artificial intelligence like Alexa and Siri are at our fingertips. Many organizations have software to help minimize bias whether it’s an applicant tracking system or a talent management system. An applicant tracking system can ensure that resumes are being compared to a predetermine criteria. Without an applicant tracking system, we review resumes looking for traits that our brains have filed away as being “good” or “acceptable”. In many cases, these traits will be reminiscent of ourselves! An applicant tracking system can also remove identifiers that may sway our decision to move someone along in the hiring process.
Some talent management systems have a flag notification that appears when a person has been in the same position for more than 18 months. This prompts a conversation to better understand why that employee hasn’t progressed in their career. Leaders are finding that this notification has increased career conversations for women and people of color, considerably. A software company, called Textio, allows leaders to upload a job description for analysis. Textio is looking for words or phrases that may be biased based on research. For example, phrases like “work hard, play hard” are 15 times more likely to attract males applicants than female applicants. Uber used the phrase “high performance culture” and found that it attracted male applicants at a rate of 23 times that of female applicants. Textio helps leaders create gender neutral job descriptions.
Technology is great, but we know that it can’t solve everything! At the end of the day, people also have to be Bias Interrupters. During the Obama administration, the women in office realized that their ideas were being stolen and claimed by men during meetings so they created a plan to interrupt that pattern. They began amplifying each other’s voices, thoughts, and ideas. When a woman articulated an idea, another woman would say, “Demetria, that was a great idea” or “To build on what Demetria said earlier” to ensure that the credit is always given to the originator.
This same sentiment applies in a variety of situations such as when employees face a parenthood penalty, women approach a glass ceiling, people of color encounter the concrete ceiling, and so on. We have an obligation to speak up and against these things when we see them! Have you ever heard someone ask a woman with kids how she manages work and family? Sure you have! Be a bias interrupter! When you go to a meeting and see all white people or all men, be a bias interrupter! Ask why there is no diversity. Have someone in the room who will be the designated bias interrupter. Their job being to interrupt, question, and build new conscious behaviors to replace the unconscious biases that stall diversity and inclusion.We can all be bias interrupters! In what ways does your organization interrupt bias?
Continue the conversation at the Network of Intersectional Leaders!
"Professor, I feel like I'm missing something. I'm going to one class and we talk about ways to attract and be more inclusive of women. Then, I go to another class and we discuss issues facing black and brown people. I don't feel like my experiences and perspective are discussed. I don't feel like I can bring myself into the conversation. What am I missing?"
That was the gist of my bewildered conversation with my professor and advisor in an attempt to understand what was missing. The recommendation from my professor changed my life.
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