Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, everyone thought the lack of diversity at the top of organizations was mainly a “pipeline” problem. Not enough women and people of color had the requisite education and experience to fill the top slots of organizations. People assumed that time would solve the problem. It hasn’t. Women make up more than half of college graduates now and are a large percentage of graduates in most professional programs. Women enter the workforce in greater numbers than men. So, what’s the problem? There are multiple problems, some individual and some systemic. Organizations must take a multi-pronged approach to make any meaningful difference.
On an individual level, we all have internalized certain societal messages about the appropriate roles and characteristics of men, women, and people of color. Other dimensions of diversity, such as age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability/disability, add levels of nuance beyond the scope of this article, but the societal messages are equally strong. Even though we may have the best of intentions, we are influenced by these internalized messages and unconsciously may be making decisions based on those messages. Making individuals aware of their unconscious biases is the first step, but it’s not enough. Good intentions will not keep us from acting on these biases because they’re unconscious. We must implement systems, processes, and strategies to interrupt our thinking, make our biases conscious, and take steps to counteract these biases. Biases are built into the foundations of our organizations, and unless systematically exposed and interrupted, they will continue to weaken any attempts at diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.
A great resource to help organizations make meaningful change is The Center for Work Life Law and its website: BiasInterrupters.org. This group assisted the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association to produce You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Racial and Gender Bias in the Legal Profession. Both are excellent resources.
Four Types of Bias
(From The Center for Work Life Law)
Women of color, white women, and men of color report that they must go “above and beyond” to get the same recognition and respect as their white male colleagues.
Women of all races report pressure to behave in feminine ways, including backlash for masculine behaviors and higher loads of non-career-enhancing “office housework.”
Women of all races report that they are treated worse after they have children.
Tug of War
The Tug of War happens when a biased environment at work makes people in the same demographic group feel like they are pitted against each other.
A Three-step Approach to Combatting Bias
The website Bias Interrupters defines bias interrupters as tweaks to basic business systems that can yield large gains for any organization using a three-step process.
- Use Metrics
- Implement Bias Interrupters
- Repeat as Needed
For each aspect of a business’s operation, the website offers guidance about how to measure the current level of bias and methods to interrupt the bias Including:
- Performance Evaluations
- Hiring and Recruiting
- Family Leave
Bias in an organization cannot be solved by one-off diversity training to attempt to change the hearts and minds of individuals within the organization. Bias is a business problem and needs to be approached with a business mindset. The resources mentioned in this article will give you a great head start in tackling bias in your own organization. Doing so is likely to result in attracting and retaining a more diverse workforce—an outcome known to yield competitive and financial advantages.