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The Equity Factor

How Unconscious Bias Can Control Where We Live and Work

Google provides training on unconscious bias for employees. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Fair Housing Act in late June was seen by many as an acknowledgement of how racial discrimination continues to affect real estate — whether intentional or not. And from why police make arrests to how bosses review employees, unconscious (or implicit) bias has a widespread effect on minorities and women. As a result, it is much more difficult to insulate against — and educate about — than overt racism and sexism.

An annual report from the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, State of the Science: Implicit Bias, reviews research on the ways that such bias creates inequitable outcomes in criminal justice, housing, employment, education and more.

I spoke with the primary author of the 2015 report, Cheryl Staats, about emerging research on implicit bias and how, specifically in the workplace, that plays into income inequality.

How does confirmation bias affect minorities and women in the workplace?
Confirmation bias refers to the tendency for people to seek information that confirms their preexisting beliefs or assumptions. It can even cause people to overlook facts that contradict their pre-established ideas because they are still unconsciously seeking to confirm ideas that they believe they already know.

There’s a great 2014 study where [researchers] sought out the ways that confirmation bias can unconsciously influence the evaluation of employees’ work products. In the gist of the study, they created a fictitious legal research memo where 60 different law firm partners from 22 different law firms review a memo under the guise of a writing analysis study. They sent them all the same memo, which had deliberate grammatical, factual and technical analysis errors. Half were listed as having an African-American author and half were listed as having a Caucasian author.

Cheryl Staats

When the author was perceived as being African-American, the partners found more of the errors and rated the memo with lower quality than when the author was Caucasian. … All of these dynamics are happening outside of conscious awareness, so this means that minorities and women can be evaluated differently than their counterparts even when their evaluators have egalitarian intentions. And you can imagine that this can have significant implications for employees’ career trajectories.

What are some successful workplace de-biasing techniques?
There’s a lot of awareness raising going on right now. It’s really important to be aware of any discrepancies that may exist between your conscious ideals and any unconscious automatic biases that you may harbor. … That awareness is a leverage point for creating the opportunity to be able to shift people’s thinking and behavior.

A really great example of what’s going on right now is Google. Google has developed an unconscious bias workshop to help their staff members understand implicit biases, so that they can be able to address them. More than 25,000 Google employees have attended this workshop and a video of the workshop is available online.

Another approach to addressing implicit bias in the workplace is actually creating structures for making decisions. Because biases work very quickly and outside of conscious bias the goal of these efforts is to help decision-makers slow down and be more mindful and deliberate about their decisions. Something like using standardized interview questions can limit the amount of discretion available to interviewers.

If implicit bias training were universally required in workplaces, how different would America be?
Training is no doubt a very important step in addressing implicit biases, because our awareness of these cognitive dynamics is really critical so that we can begin to mitigate them both as individuals and also looking at things from the organizational level. What I would emphasize though is that training cannot be regarded as a one-time solution that actually fixes the problem. Implicit bias insights need to be consistently interwoven throughout the organization. Trying to reinforce these ideas and further the foundation that a training session begins is critical to keeping these things in peoples’ minds and being able to make a difference in the entire workplace culture.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Tags: jobsincome inequalityrace