Hidden Forces at Work: Unconscious Bias in Learning
In today’s workplace, there’s an unseen force influencing our decisions. Multiple studies show that:
- Resumes with “white”-sounding names (like “Greg”) are 50 percent more likely to get an interview with potential employers than more stereotypically African-American-sounding names (like “Jamal”), even when the resumes are otherwise identical.
- Brunette and redhead women’s salaries are approximately seven percent lower than their blonde counterparts’ salaries.
- Almost 60 percent of corporate CEOs are over six feet tall – a large disproportion given that fewer than 15 percent of American men are over this height. Even “House of Cards” president Frank Underwood knows this trend, saying in one episode, “Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln. Tall men make great presidents.”
The force at work here is unconscious bias. This unseen yet pervasive force influences many of the decisions we make in our lives and our work, from recruiting to promoting to incentivizing our employees. Yet there’s little conversation about how unconscious bias can impact the learning function of an organization and how, by countering it, we can make a profound difference.
WHAT IS UNCONSCIOUS BIAS?
According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, unconscious biases are the “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” By definition, we aren’t even aware that our minds are holding on to these biases (also known as “implicit” or “hidden” biases).
The opposite – overt or explicit biases – are attitudes or prejudices that one endorses on a conscious level. We’re pretty good at calling out overt biases, especially in the workplace, but we’re not as good at identifying unconscious ones.
Think about this situation: You’re sitting on an airplane in a middle seat. As people start to filter in, a little voice in your head starts to categorize people by thinking, “Sit next to me!” or “Please keep going!” without realizing it. That little voice is an example of your unconscious biases at work.
Here’s another: In his book “Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives” (2010), Shankar Vedantam says, “Right now, your hidden brain is doing many more things than your conscious brain could attend to with the same efficiency. The hidden brain sacrifices sophistcation[ME1] to achieve speed.”
Now reread that quote. Did you miss the spelling error? If you did, that’s your unconscious mind again at work, quickly determining the correct meaning of “sophistication” and allowing you to continue reading.
Does everyone have unconscious bias? Well, if you are human, you do. And it’s all because of our ancestors. Back in cave times, when a big, hairy, snaggled-toothed creature entered the cave door, our ancestors didn’t spend time thinking, “Well, those teeth look big, but maybe they’re for eating plants.”
No: Their unconscious brains kicked in, analyzed the data presented (big hairy thing with teeth) and made decisions (fight or flight) about what to do next. This wiring was a safety mechanism that allowed those cave folks to automatically make decisions for their own survival.
Flash forward to our 21st-century selves: We’re still wired this way. Studies show that much of our decision-making is automatic and unconscious. Our brains determine whether something or someone is safe before we can even begin to consciously make a determination.
Neurologists estimate that we are exposed to as many as 11 million pieces of information at any one moment, but our conscious brains can only functionally deal with about 40 of them. That gap in the data that needs processing? That’s where our unconscious selves get to work, analyzing the 99.999999996 percent of the data that our conscious minds can’t get to.
So, as humans, the question we should ask ourselves isn’t, “Do I have unconscious bias?” but rather, “What unconscious biases do I have?”
OK: I HAVE BIAS. WHERE DID MY SPECIFIC BIASES COME FROM?
Because our ancestors were all about safety, the “same = safe, different = dangerous” mentality is a deep-rooted part of our wiring. We unconsciously resist those people who are different from us; moreover, those definitions of “same” and “different” are created through our exposure to the world from day one. Family members, tribe members, communities, geography, media and experiences all shape these personal definitions of “same” and “different.”
It’s not necessarily a big experience that makes me unconsciously think, “______ types are ______.” It’s more like a constant drip of water on a piece of granite. Over time, that water will shape and change the granite, much like, over time, our experiences will shape our unconscious biases.
That principle applies to both “for” and “against” attitudes and ideas about people. I may favor family, friends and people to whom I feel connected based on shared (i.e., same) characteristics, like those who share my alma mater or my skin color.
Thoughts aren’t necessarily harmful. It’s when we act on hidden prejudices that we can get into trouble.
[UNCONSCIOUS] THOUGHTS LEAD TO ACTIONS: MICROINEQUITIES
When we act on our unconscious biases, we might create subtle, unintentional acts of discrimination called “microinequities.” For example, the consistent use of the pronoun “he” when referring to a corporate executive unconsciously sends the message that all executives are male. Conversely, when we consistently use “she” in reference to anyone in traditionally female-dominated professions, such as nursing or teaching, we are reinforcing the stereotype that all teachers and nurses are female.
Microinequities tend to occur whenever people are perceived to be different. Typically, the perpetrator makes a statement, gives some nonverbal signal or otherwise gives the “micromessage” that something is the “norm” (“all executives are hes” or “all nurses are shes”). The recipient of this microinequity (say, a female co-worker) hears this micromessage and may even speak up against it. The perpetrator may brush it off, saying, “Oh, you’re so sensitive” or “I was only kidding. Lighten up!”
However, these statements still impact the recipient, who feels excluded and thus, over time (the drip-drip-drip on granite), her self-confidence erodes. This erosion of self-confidence directly impacts self-efficacy (If I believe I’m good at something, I will be good at it, or if I believe I’m bad at something, I will be bad at it).
The vast majority of employees have been on the receiving end of unconscious microinequities. One study found that over 71 percent of the workforce has experienced some form of “workplace incivility” (microinequity) over a five-year period (Don Zander, Brookings Institution, 2002). If you fall into the “out” group (i.e., you’re “different”) in any environment, you have the potential to be the victim of a microinequity.
Microinequities can cause serious damage. Since they are a form of prejudice – punishment for being different – and occur in the context of work, without regard to performance or merit, they can undermine the effectiveness and engagement level of the recipient.
These interactions, though they are unconscious, take up workplace time and energy and undermine interpersonal trust and relationships among employees. Ultimately, they impact performance and the bottom line. And on a higher level, they affect society and how we view each other and get along.
MITIGATING UNCONSCIOUS BIAS & MICROINEQUITIES IN LEARNING
While mitigating unconscious bias is an organizational effort (one department, say, human resources, cannot change the overall corporate culture alone), the learning and development function can identify and mitigate the perpetuation of unconscious biases and microinequities that can impact its internal clients.
For example: Pay attention to the visual images you use in your learning content, such as slide show presentations or online training. What do you see? Is there female representation in senior leadership in your scenarios? Are your frontline employees represented by people with differing abilities? When you talk about employee benefits in your onboarding presentation, are some of your married couples represented by same-sex or biracial couples?
A powerful exercise is to gather a team of diverse individuals who can look at the content from their individual perspectives and share what they see in a nonjudgmental manner. If you have employee resource groups representing various facets of diversity within your business, leverage their expertise to help you uncover your hidden biases and those rooted in the culture of your organization.
While no silver bullet exists to eradicate microinequities in our learning interventions, embracing inclusivity is at the heart of any effort to facilitate true change. Attempt to include all perspectives and ideas within your training efforts, and not just those of the “in” or majority group. Go against the norm to show people of all types – including those who aren’t often considered (e.g., body types, ages and other characteristics that typical stock photos may not often include) and all personality types (e.g., introverts, extroverts) – in your training messages.
SO, WHAT NOW?
Together, we can all do our part to facilitate change. The good news: We can indeed “debias” and unlearn the biases our unconscious maintains. Here are five strategies you can share and apply in your workplace to be more inclusive:
1. Educate yourself: There are many great books, websites and resources on unconscious bias. Be sure your first stop is Project Implicit, where you can take assessments to measure your personal unconscious bias.
2. Educate others: Talk with colleagues in and out of your department about unconscious bias and its impact on your workplace (and beyond). Encourage them to explore their own implicit biases using the resources identified here.
3. Collect relevant data in your work area to find hidden bias: Conduct your audit, and then do something about it. Show others your effort to mitigate the impact of unconscious bias in your work, and help them see how they can do the same in their departments.
4. Evaluate subtle messages within your work that support unconscious bias: Go beyond your learning and development area, and see what messages are shared on an unconscious level. To whom does your company market? To whom does it not market? What do your hiring practices look like? What’s the makeup of the senior executive team?
5. Create and support a culture that holds everyone accountable: One of the most challenging and important strategies to implement is engaging senior leadership to help hold others accountable for unconscious bias. How will your culture deal with those who “violate” the unconscious bias efforts? Find a way that works for your culture to respectfully hold one another accountable for microinequities when they occur – and prevent them from happening again.
All humans are subject to our own biases, even well-intentioned learning and development professionals like you and me. It’s when we make the effort to mitigate these hidden forces that we can bring great change to our workplace and beyond.
Dr. Steve Yacovelli is the director of inclusion and change at SweetRush, Inc.
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Written for TrainingIndustry.com