Many of my clients have been shocked after conducting internal audits of their organizations. Data analysis often reveals that racial minorities—especially Black and Indigenous People—face the highest rates of discrimination and harassment within the workplace. Members of these groups also are less likely to be promoted into higher leadership roles. And this is not limited to my specific clients— this trend is pervasive in all major organizations and institutions in society. As we will discuss, the impacts are not just on the individuals who are targets of bias, but it ultimately costs organizations both time and money.
But why does this happen in the first place? It’s not like our institutions are overrun by individuals whose idea of weekend relaxation includes dressing up in white pointy hats and burning crosses? In fact, in today’s workplace, whether in Canada and the US, most people believe themselves to be well-intentioned and fair-minded. The idea of having prejudice, let alone acting on one’s prejudice, feels alien to most. Yet, for decades research has shown that minority groups face discrimination that is systemic – be that based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability. To be clear, this doesn’t mean 100% of minorities face discrimination 100% of the time…but it happens with enough regularity that the problem is significant, not random.
Part of why this happens is that our judgments about other people are based on beliefs about social groups rather than the actions of individuals. The power of the stereotype is not to be underestimated. The mind has many automatic, unconscious ways of reinforcing beliefs about social groups – even for those who are diversity minded.
Confirmation bias is one such cognitive phenomenon, the tendency to pay more attention to stereotype-confirming behaviour while ignoring information that contradicts the stereotype. Again, this happens without thinking, in an involuntary manner. Most social psychologists who study this phenomenon agree that when implicit stereotypes are activated, our perceptions, attitudes and behaviours can be affected. Literally, what we see, hear, pay attention to, emphasize or ignore is influenced by such biases.
For example, Jackie, a department manager, supervises Humera, a devout Muslim employee who wears a hijab (cloth that covers hair, exposing the face). Jackie’s confirmation bias interprets Humera’s quiet, patient disposition and wearing of a hijab as indications that Humera is a follower and passive, with only adequate competencies for the job. The reality is that, other staff highly value Humera’s problem-solving skills and initiative on team projects. She is seen as pragmatic and resourceful, a respected peer.
Yet, Jackie interprets the team’s positive feedback as being protective of Humera rather than representative. Jackie’s incorrect, pre-established filter—“Muslim women are docile and oppressed”—interferes with her ability to acknowledge Humera for who she is as a whole person, beyond the stereotype. Jackie’s tone during staff meetings tends to be patronizing towards Humera, which confuses Humera and results in her talking less than in other team contexts. Jackie’s unchecked bias results in mediocre and unrepresentative performance evaluations for Humera. Demoralized, Humera begins searching for new job opportunities. She eventually quits after securing a new job at a different company.
Everyone loses in this situation. Humera who feels devalued. The team that is now short of a valued colleague. The organization, which has to go through the costly process of re-hiring and retraining. And, the manager, Jackie whose unconscious bias goes unchallenged, limits her ability to work effectively with a broad spectrum of people.
To learn more about unconscious bias and stereotypes, how these manifest in our professional and personal lives, as well as how to reduce bias in our organizations, register for the training next week in Toronto!
For more information:
Location: Centre for Social Innovation, 215 Spadina Avenue, Downtown Toronto