How to Disrupt Bias
Before you can disrupt bias in your organization, you must first determine precisely where and how it is being felt.
the Boston Symphony Orchestra famously introduced IN 1952,
‘blind auditions’ to test for gender bias in hiring, by having musicians audition behind a screen. At first, the screen made no difference in who made it past the first round of auditions. Then, suspecting that a click-clack of high heels from female musicians as they entered the room rendered the screen ineffective, the hiring committee had the musicians remove their shoes when they entered. In the absence of gendered footfalls, the judges trained their acute ears on the music itself.
Other orchestras began adopting the Boston Symphony’s approach in the 1970s, and by the 1990s, many saw increases in the number of female players. The New York Philharmonic, for example, reached 35 per cent female musicians by 1997 — a dramatic increase over having had zero female players for decades. One study of 11 major orchestras found that up to 55 per cent of their increase in new female hires could be attributed to blind auditions.
Today, this case serves as a parable for bias-busting and has helped many business leaders understand the enormous role that bias can play in how they hire, evaluate and promote employees. Hiring decisions in particular have attracted scrutiny, with study after study demonstrating that the identity implied by the name on a résumé often sways decisions.
Meanwhile, companies have also begun to recognize the positive links between diverse leadership and business outcomes. As the workforce becomes increasingly diverse, busting bias is a business-critical priority.
In recent years, companies have focused a great deal on implicit or unconscious bias. In 1995, social psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony Greenwald pioneered the theory of ‘implicit social cognition’ and created the IAT (Implicit Association Test) as a means of understanding bias. The IAT asks test takers to quickly sort words and images into positive and negative categories. Then, it generates instant results that tell test takers whether they had more trouble associating positive characteristics with a given identity — in other words, whether they are biased against a certain social group.
Talent specialists across industries have embraced the IAT as a solution to tackling the thorny issue of bias in the workplace. Each year, tens of thousands go through training based on its theoretical framework and learn about bias from Professor Banaji herself. The IAT provides a clear explanatory framework for interpreting a corporate reality: We all make rapid decisions informed by biases we hold in our unconscious minds.
Anti-bias training is particularly popular in Silicon Valley, where tech titans like Facebook and Google mandate it, although a similar trend is on the rise among Fortune 500 corporations. According to one consultant, by 2019, half of the diversity strategies at large U.S. employers could be built around it. However, despite all these efforts, gender representation in the top ranks of large corporations has remained roughly the same since 2000, and the numbers for minority executives in the private sector aren’t much better.
The Problem: Bias Training Has a Blind Spot
We have uncovered a significant blind spot in implicit bias training, which deeply affects companies’ ability to map, measure and disrupt bias: The IAT and related training focus on individuals who harbour bias. At first blush, it’s easy to see why, since managers and leaders are the ones making hiring, firing and promotion decisions — and who are in the position to see potential in and grant opportunities to the employees reporting to them. Yet focusing on those who hold unconscious biases doesn’t allow us to understand how bias is actually showing up in a company from day to day.
There is scarce evidence to show how much individuals actually act on their unconscious biases when they make decisions. A manager who, according to the IAT or any other such measure, harbours a host of biases may or may not act upon these in the workplace — in other words, there is no proven correlation between IAT scores and actual decision-making behaviour. Relying on the IAT, companies are left without a clear understanding of how bias is experienced in their organization — or the cost it levies on their bottom line.
Companies do have other ways of tracking how employees experience bias and discrimination. Many offer channels — human resources, hotlines, ombudsmen—for employees to report such instances. Yet these channels are disparate, scattershot and primarily geared towards legal protection for the company. They do not comprise a robust dataset from which to analyze bias’s true cost — or to surface effective solutions to remediate it.
All too often, the ‘solution’ for mitigating bias is light-handed: Asking individuals who go through training to try to resist their own biases, or to call others out on their biases in the moment. This ignores the culture and processes that govern behaviour — which might themselves be biased. Asking individuals to fix their own biases fails to address systemic pressures that reward ‘fast thinking’ or gut decision-making—pressures that ensure current leadership archetypes are replicated.
Decades of research affirm that when systems, processes and culture are changed, individuals are curbed from making reflexive or biased decisions. For example, say orchestras had, instead of installing screens, asked hiring committee members to consider their own biases when auditioning musicians? The results would not likely have been nearly as dramatic.
A New Approach to Bias
Armed with software that ‘blinds’ the vetting of job candidates and with rigorous protocols to codify the interview process, some talent specialists have made significant progress in disrupting bias in hiring decisions. But in decisions affecting talent development and progression, bias is much harder to detect, let alone disrupt — and far less progress has been made in this area. That’s because determining who should advance depends not just on assessing performance, but on assessing potential as well—a notoriously subjective exercise.
Such assessments take place in the thousands of spot decisions leading up to an annual performance review. Every day, week and month, managers make decisions about which tasks, clients, projects and roles are assigned to a given team member, and these seemingly minor judgments inform bigger determinations: Who will be awarded opportunities for learning and development, international rotations and stretch assignments? Indeed, lifetime career outcomes are the culmination of momentary assessments of individual potential — assessments that often depend on subjective assumptions — a ripe breeding ground for bias.
To help root out bias in judgments of potential, we have developed ACE, a framework that codifies employee potential so that we might then use it to analyze bias in assessments of potential. ACE is comprised of six areas commonly used to assess an employee’s potential in both day-to-day and cyclical decisions — and all six areas can be prone to deep subjectivity.
1. ABILITY: An employee who went to a reputable school, for instance, might be perceived as more capable of taking on new responsibilities.
2. AMBITION: An employee who volunteers for extra work or has a lead role in special projects is likely to be perceived as ‘driven to advance.’
3. COMMITMENT: An employee who is seen putting in long days at the office or making herself available nights and weekends is likely to be perceived as ‘committed to the job’.
4. CONNECTIONS: An employee involved in esteemed organizations or social circles outside of work is likely to be perceived as having relationships that will benefit the business.
5. EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE: An employee who senses what others need from him and modifies his interactions accordingly is likely to be perceived as having self-awareness, cultural awareness, and appreciation for difference.
6. EXECUTIVE PRESENCE: An employee who looks, sounds and acts like top company leaders is likely to be perceived as having the ability to command a room.
To better understand the experience and impact of bias against each ACE dimension, we charted our survey findings into a ‘heat
In decisions affecting talent development and progression, bias is harder to detect.
map’. The Bias Heat Map (see Figure One) shows negative bias by talent cohort against each of the ACE framework’s six areas of potential. The order of the talent cohorts reflects the prevalence of ACE bias among our survey respondents: those least likely to report ACE bias are at the far left, on the yellow end of the scale. Those most likely to report ACE bias are at the far right, on the red end of the scale. So, what does the Bias Heat Map tell us?
Expected Findings: In some key ways, the heat map confirms traditional hypotheses around bias and diversity. For instance, among our survey respondents at large companies, black, Latino, and Asian cohorts are more likely to report ACE bias than white cohorts are. Employees with disabilities — a group for which exclusion is well-documented — are on the far right of the Heat Map, along with employees born outside of the U.S.
Surprising Findings: Further scrutiny of the Heat Map reveals some distinct surprises. In our sample of employees at large companies, men were more likely to report ACE bias than women, and flex workers (male and female) were less likely to report ACE bias than men as a whole. When we dug into intersection-alities, even more surprises emerged: Asian men are more likely than Asian women to perceive ACE bias, especially on ambition and ability; black women are less likely to perceive bias than black men; and gay or bisexual men are more likely than lesbian or bisexual women to perceive bias.
As any professional who has experienced bias knows well, its impact can be profound. Feeling misjudged on one’s professional potential damages productivity and commitment. Remember, ACE bias is the employee’s perception that superiors mis-assess their potential. Perception of bias can lead employees to behave in ways that cost their companies. Indeed, we found that employees who perceive ACE bias behave in three very costly ways:
Employees who perceive ACE bias are more THEY BURN OUT. likely than those who don’t to burn out. They’re also more likely to feel alienated at work, withhold their ideas and lack pride in their companies. In other words, they’re more likely to be disengaged.
ACE bias is linked to costly decreases in retention. THEY BUST OUT.
Those who perceive ACE bias, demoralized by limited prospects for advancement due to negative assessments of their potential, are far more likely to start looking for another job, or to want to leave their companies within the year.
The most extreme reaction employees can have THEY BLOW UP. when they perceive ACE bias is to engage in small (or large) acts of sabotage. That can mean intentionally failing to follow through on an important assignment or speaking negatively about their company in public — for example, on social media. Blowing up is rare, but it carries enormous costs. Just think of the damage whistleblowers have inflicted on their employers over the years when they find their companies lack the systems and processes to respond to their concerns. The same is true when bias goes unchecked.
Disrupting Bias: A Three-part Strategy
How can we determine which interventions disrupt bias? By looking at which interventions ‘cool down’ our Heat Map. We tested several potential solutions, and discovered three to be particularly effective in minimizing ACE bias across talent cohorts.
To measure diversity in leadership, we
1. DIVERSIFY LEADERSHIP. asked survey respondents, ‘Which kinds of diversity do you see in your company’s leadership?’ Then, we asked them to check any of the following that apply:
• Religious background
We consider the leadership of a respondent’s company to be inherently diverse if there are at least three types of diversity represented. Diversity in leadership is crucial to disrupting ACE bias. Inherently diverse executives demonstrate that difference is valued at their companies. They are in a position to endorse ideas from diverse employees. They also provide a ‘counter-stereotypical’ example for all employees, expanding their notions of who successful top leaders are, undercutting deep-seated biases.
In order to truly see 2. ADVANCE AN INCLUSIVE LEADERSHIP CULTURE. the potential of diverse employees on teams, leaders have to get beyond gut-level assumptions. They can do so by fostering a ‘speak-up culture’ where everyone feels welcome and included, free to share their ideas and opinions, and confident that their ideas will be heard and recognized. With that kind of culture, individuals of all backgrounds have the opportunity to subvert others’ assumptions or biases about them. In other words, they are inclusive leaders.
Indeed, our data shows that with inclusive team leaders,
employees at large companies are 87 per cent less likely to perceive ACE bias and 39 per cent more likely to be engaged. For example, every manager at Sodexo is expected to prioritize diversity and inclusion (D&I) — and that expectation is backed by compensation incentives. Fully 10 per cent of managers’ compensation is determined by their ratings on a D&I Scorecard — based on both their ability to meet diversity targets in the composition of their teams and on their inclusive approach. “It’s extremely important to show we are willing to put our money where our mouth is on inclusion,” says Stephen Dunmore, CEO of North America Schools at Sodexo.
How can companies CONNECT DIVERSE TALENT TO SPONSORS. diversify leadership if talent that doesn’t fit narrow leadership
archetypes continues to experience bias and stall on the way to the top? Five of our own studies conducted since 2010 point to the solution: Diverse employees need sponsors or senior-level advocates to lever them into leadership, effectively bypassing or negating the effects of managerial bias.
Top talent isn’t sponsored equally: Men are 46 per cent more likely than women to have a sponsor, and Caucasians are 63 per cent more likely than employees of colour to enjoy such advocacy. Sponsors advocate for their protégés’ advancement — and they see furthering a protégé’s career as an important investment in their own. Like inclusive leaders, sponsors turn out to have a profoundly mitigating effect on the ACE bias that employees perceive. Why? Because sponsors see their protégé’s potential clearly — and are willing to fight to make sure others see it as well. With sponsors, employees at large companies are 90 per cent less likely to perceive ACE bias and 21 per cent more likely to be engaged.
To ensure more women and people of colour circumvent bias to break through to leadership, organizations have crafted programs that get senior leaders to feel comfortable advocating for diverse individuals. The results are truly bias-busting: At one Fortune 100 financial services firm, 62 per cent of participants in its women’s sponsorship program have reported a change in their level of responsibility as a direct result of the program.
Elsewhere, Intel’s Extend Our Reach program for women and people of colour has culminated in mobility for 40 per cent of participants since its inception in 2011, with 16 of them attaining vice-president level promotions and one attaining the level of corporate vice president.
For most organizations, the solution set for eliminating bias will be more complex than putting up a screen and asking applicants to remove their shoes. It will have to target both manager behaviour and the culture that shapes the employee experience. But first, it requires individuals to understand precisely where bias is felt, so that organizations can map, measure and disrupt bias where costs to individuals and the organization are the greatest.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the founder and CEO of the Centre for Talent Innovation, and codirector of the Women’s Leadership Program at Columbia Business School. Ripa Rashid is co-president at the Centre for Talent Innovation. Laura Sherbin is Co-president, Chief Financial Officer and Director of Research at the Centre for Talent Innovation and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University. They are the co-authors of Disrupt Bias, Drive Value: A New Path Toward Diverse, Engaged, and Fulfilled Talent (Rare Bird Books, 2017).