Designing diversity and bypassing unconscious bias
A lot of people can agree that the lack of diversity in the workplace is a major problem. It has become something of a truism to say that the workplace is disproportionately dominated by white men. If so many people agree that this problem exists, then why does it still loom? Why isn’t change happening when so many agree that it should?
Iris Bohnet, professor of public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, delivered a SXSW Interactive session that directly tackled these questions. Her emphasis was on gender in the workplace, but many of the principles she discussed hold promise for diversity across all identity markers.
She highlighted the shortcomings of common approaches to creating a more diverse workplace. Diversity training programs in particular were shown to be ineffective. Researchers, Bohnet pointed out, have found no correlation between the presence of such programs and the presence of actual diversity.
“Change did not come about because minds were changed,” she said.
Hear Bohnet elaborate on this subject in the video below.
The root of the problem goes much deeper than opinions or beliefs. Even people who value diversity can fall prey to discriminatory practices without being cognizant of what they are doing. Bias does not have to be conscious.
To solve the problem of unconscious bias, Bohnet advocated that those with power systematically create talent management systems that bypass latent biases. Diversity can be achieved by design and the very structure of hiring and promotional practices needs to change.
Bohnet discussed problems and solutions for multiple aspects of the talent management process, beginning with recruitment.
In Bohnet’s words, better recruitment practices are low-hanging fruit.
Using particular adjectives to describe jobs often has the effect of generating an applicant pool comprised predominantly of one gender. Simply changing the words used in job postings makes an important difference.
“Women are more likely to apply to jobs with more stereotypically female adjectives and the reverse is true for men,” she said.
Bohnet gave the example of job postings for elementary school teachers. In these advertisements, words like “nurturing” and “caring” are invoked frequently and cause potential male applicants to stay away in droves.
Working in tandem with recruitment practices in the creation of homogeneous workplaces are techniques for interviewing.
“Interviews are likely the worst instrument to predict future performance at our disposal,” said Bohnet.
Her reasoning was simple: when interviewers see people they are able to assign them to a demographic and their unconscious biases, positive or negative, are activated. Many organizations have tried to work around this tendency by injecting interview committees with a shot of diversity. According to Bohnet, the efficacy of this practice is nil.
“These biases are held by all of us almost independent of our own demographic characteristics,” she said before advocating before blind interviews where a curtain separates the engaged parties.
Face-to-face interviews, she conceded, do become necessary at some point in the interview process. Specific protocols should be developed to ensure that each candidate is evaluated on their own merits.
Bohnet recommended that interviews be supplemented, or even replaced, with tests whenever possible. Measuring outcomes is a far more objective method than relying on the hunches that can form during interviews. Interviews are also most effective when standardized. Routine questions should be used during each interview process so that candidates can be more directly compared with one another.
In the later portion of her session, Bohnet transitioned into talking about the step after creating a diverse working environment: making sure that the opportunity is distributed equally.
When it comes to promotions, organizations often unwittingly employ practices that handicap women in the workplace. Bohnet gave the example of self-evaluations. Women are taught by culture to be less aggressive in highlighting their achievements than men. This cultural norm has massive ramifications for the demographics any organization’s upper echelon because self-authored evaluations are frequently taken into consideration when promotions are given.
The conclusion of Bohnet’s presentation detailed both the benefits and difficulties of diversity in action.
For many people the observable world is a map of what is possible. A world where boardrooms and top-floor offices are dominated by men gains momentum. It is easy to confuse the way things are for the way things should be, but doing so excludes large swaths of people from the opportunity to pursue their passions. It also deprives teams of the benefits of collaboration across demographics; diverse teams have been shown to outperform homogeneous teams.
Hear more, from Bohnet herself, on this subject below.