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Data-Driven Strategies to Address Diversity & Unconscious Bias

Our guest, Dr. Lauren Aguilar, is one of the world’s foremost scientific experts on diversity and inclusion (D&I), and specializes in translating the science of diversity into actionable strategies. She is a diversity and inclusion partner with Forshay, a consulting firm that designs and implements comprehensive organizational D&I strategy informed by scientific research and evidence-based practices.

Does bias influence your decisions in the workplace?

If you don’t think bias affects your people and talent decisions, then it almost certainly does. Today we’re addressing the reality of unconscious bias; demonstrating how it negatively impacts people and talent decisions; and teaching strategies to minimize unconscious bias.

“Humans have this sense that we know our own minds, and that we’re able to assess people in fair and accurate ways… but science has taught us that it’s just an illusion of objectivity.”
–Dr. Lauren Aguilar

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is the brain’s automatic tendency to take mental shortcuts based on cultural stereotypes and preconceptions. It’s an adaptive skill that we use to subconsciously and quickly process millions of bits of information, but it can be problematic.

When unconscious bias influences our decision-making about people, we are more likely to make errors and rely on stereotypes.

The idea of unconscious bias, or being labeled as someone with unconscious bias, can make some people feel uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t.

  • As humans, we like to think that we know our own minds; that we’re able to assess people in fair and accurate ways… but science has taught us that this is an illusion of objectivity.
  • Unconscious bias ≠ sexism or racism, which are based on conscious beliefs. Instead, unconscious bias reflects the cues and messages in our culture, not whether we endorse those stereotypes.

Unconscious bias doesn't mean you're a good person or a bad person. If you have unconscious bias, it just means you're a human.

To illustrate unconscious bias, try this quick exercise with a group of two or more people:

  1. All but one person should clear their mind and close their eyes.
  2. The remaining person should ask this question: “What does a scientist look like?”
  3. Quickly, everyone should write down a description of the image that immediately popped into their mind.

You will likely see a lot of similarities between answers in a group, or if you perform the exercise multiple times. Most people imagine an older man, possibly an Einstein-type, in a lab coat. Even Dr. Aguilar unconsciously conjures this image, and she is a scientist.

This exercise demonstrates how the same media images and societal influences can affect everyone’s unconscious beliefs about a particular role, and how unconscious bias still affects members of stereotyped groups.

If you want to learn more about your implicit associations on race, gender, sexual orientation, and other topics, check out implicit.harvard.edu. Project Implicit offers a test for the implicit biases in your own brain and a number of great resources.

“If you want to hire and retain the best talent, you absolutely have to manage unconscious bias in your people decisions.” –Dr. Lauren Aguilar

Addressing the reality of unconscious bias is also financially prudent. Why? Because unchecked unconscious bias creates homogeny, but diversity improves the function of a business that is trying to innovate.

Cristian Deszö of the University of Maryland and David Ross of Columbia University studied the effect of gender diversity on the top firms by examining 15 years of panel data from Standard & Poor's Composite 1500 list. They found that, on average, “female representation in top management leads to an increase of $42 million in firm value.”

Unconscious bias presents a barrier to diversity, and thus value, because it specifically undermines operations like hiring, salary offers, mentorship, performance evaluations, and promotion decisions.

Harvard Business Review, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, and more publications have written about the prevalence and impact of gender bias in performance reviews. Reviews of female employees contain up to 98 percent more negative criticism about their personality, while the vast majority of male employees receive no negative criticism about their personality. Instead, men are given more constructive criticism related to their job performance and are more likely to be considered assertive.

The short-term result of this bias is that women are passed over for promotions and raises, and the long-term result is that women aren’t given the same opportunities to grow over time.

A field experiment conducted by The National Bureau of Economic Research demonstrates how bias affects critical people decisions by measuring racial discrimination in the labor market. They sent 5,000 fictitious resumes to over 1,000 real job openings, half with typically white names and half with typically African-American names. They found significant discrimination against African-American names.

  • African-American names had to send 50% more resumes than white names, which is equivalent to needing eight more years of experience to get a callback.
  • The reward for a better resume is different. White names with a higher quality resume elicit 30 percent more callbacks, but African-American names do not see a significant increase.

NBER’s novel experiment shows that, when everything else is the same, unconscious biases not only exist but also produce negative results when making important people decisions.

However, we can consciously put structures and processes in place to minimize unconscious bias. Dr. Aguilar offers these actionable strategies that you can use, immediately, to review and revise your people and talent processes.

With any D&I strategy, it’s important that the process remains consistent for everyone participating, and that everyone buys in. These strategies won’t work if there is any deviation.

Three Things To Discuss With Your Team:

  1. Write down criteria for people decisions before making them. Once we write down the criteria for decisions, be them hiring decisions or performance review decisions, then we hold ourselves accountable and we make deliberate decisions based on that criteria.
  2. Add structure to the interview process. Create a set of interview questions that are used consistently across candidates, and across interviewers. It is critical that everyone uses identical questions.
  3. Write down structured interview feedback immediately after the interview, before talking to coworkers. This feedback should be aligned to the criteria you wrote down for the role. Similarly, don’t discuss the candidate with coworkers before conducting the interview.

In the long-term, it's really important for your company to partner with organizations that offer science- and data-driven processes related to your specific culture. These organizations will do research to uncover the particular barriers in your organization, and then translate the science into custom strategies. You can learn more about Forshay’s consulting services on their website.

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And remember… Develop. Always.

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