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Strong Female Lead

How Unconscious Bias Affects Everything You Do

Ask yourself a few questions about your hidden biases before making big decisions.

[Photo: Flickr user Stephen Wolfe]

As late as 1970, only 5% of the musicians in the most prestigious orchestras of the world were women. Even after a decade of hard-fought battles for gender equality, no major orchestra was more than 12% female in 1980. The bias that held women back was both conscious and unconscious. Regardless of which, it was universal in its impact. And yet, today almost 40% of orchestral musicians are women.

What created the change? Was it a natural outgrowth of the women’s movement?

The drive for gender equity may have been an inspiration, but the changes were the result of a range of activities that orchestras began to engage in that ended up creating the change in demographics. They expanded auditions beyond personal invitation by advertising through the musicians’ unions and other publications. The number of people who auditioned quintupled. The raters for the auditions were expanded.

Most significantly, the musicians began to audition behind a shield that restricted the raters from knowing who they were. They were given numbers instead of names. The raters could only evaluate the music, not the musicians.

How Can We Change Our Unconscious Bias?

Our understanding of unconscious bias has exploded in the past two decades. Over 1,000 studies in the past 10 years alone have conclusively shown that if you’re human, you have bias, and that it impacts almost every variation of human identity: Race, gender, sexual orientation, body size, religion, accent, height, hand dominance, etc. The question is not "do we have bias?" but rather "which are ours?"

But what can we do about it? The impact on work life is dramatic. How can we hire, retain, and develop the best people and make the best decisions in running our organizations if we are not even aware of the forces that dominate the choices we make? It is unlikely that we can eliminate our biases, because they are so natural to the way we are learning that the human mind functions. However, we are learning that there are things that we can do to mitigate the impact of biases on our organizational decision-making.

Initially people within the organization must become aware of the impact of unconscious bias on their decision-making through various forms of education. This will help them realize and accept that we all have bias, and learn to watch for it in themselves as much as possible. We might think of it as similar to what happens when we step on the clutch in a standard transmission automobile. The motor doesn’t stop running, but it stops moving the car. When we are aware of our biases and watch out for them, they are less likely to blindly dictate our decisions.

Secondly, we have to begin to develop approaches that help us make decisions more consciously. These can occur in three areas: priming; reorganized structures and systems; and new forms of accountability.

Priming is an imbedded memory effect that gets created when one activity subtly and often unconsciously impacts subsequent behaviors. By consciously priming people to pay attention to potential areas of bias, we have found that they can be encouraged to be more conscious of their decision-making processes. For example, before reviewing resumes, managers can be asked to respond to a series of questions like:

  • "Does this person’s resume remind you in any way about yourself?"
  • "Does it remind you of somebody you know? Is that positive or negative?"
  • "Are there things about the resume that particularly impact you? Are they really relevant to the job?"
  • "What assessments have you made already about the person? Are they grounded in solid information or simply your interpretations?"

Processes like this can be put in place before almost any talent management process—recruiting, interviewing, hiring, promotion, performance reviews, etc.—and can help people be more aware of what’s impacting them. As Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman said, "The odds of limiting the constraints of biases in a group setting rise when discussion of them is widespread."

The numbers of women musicians increased because orchestras reorganized structures and systems. In businesses this can mean structured interviewing processes; performance review processes that are built more on dialogue than arbitrary numerical ratings that vary from manager to manager; structured mentoring programs in which all employees are provided mentoring and then monitored to be sure that opportunities are systematically distributed.

It can mean helping managers look at how they run meetings and design them in a way that encourages broader inclusion by a wider variety of voices. In fact in virtually all areas of the talent management pipeline there are ways to help people be more conscious about the decisions they make, and why they make them.

Finally, new forms of accountability have to be put in place so that it becomes clear when there are patterns of bias playing out. For example, if a manager gives 10 performance reviews, five to men and five to women, and four out of the highest five are women, it should at the very least call for an inquiry into whether there might be a pro-female bias in the process. It might be total coincidence, but it is worth checking. As the old saying goes, "you can expect what you inspect."

Bias may be as natural to human beings as breathing, and it may very well be impossible to drive it out of human behavior. But by shifting the mindset of an organization and inviting constant inquiry into how we make decisions, we can create businesses, like orchestras, with a broader diversity of talent.

That will be sweet music to the ears.

Howard Ross is the author of Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives. He is the founder and chief learning officer of Cook Ross, Inc., a corporate consulting firm. He is one of the nation’s leading diversity training consultants and a nationally recognized expert on diversity, leadership, and organizational change.