Contemplating Bias

Two weeks ago, I attended a half-day workshop at MIT called "Breaking the Mold." Hosted by the women of the Sloan School of Business, the session on February 5th was the second of a two-part series. My understanding is that this conference will be continued in the coming years (which I hope is true!). Before I dive into the compelling lessons delivered by the wonderfully curated event, let me offer a bit of perspective.

While I don't openly talk much about issues surrounding gender equality / gender leadership, there are definitely experiences I've had as a professional woman that make me stop and ponder, would this have really happened if I were the opposite gender? I'll never truly know that answer in any of those situations. Yet what has happened as a result of those experiences has been my own increasing awareness of how I engage with diverse people every single day. I try to be more observant, more empathetic, and do my best to see multiple perspectives, not just the single perspective that I'm coming from.

A second outcome of these experiences has been a heightened awareness of the increasing number of discussions, examples, and learning brought to light surrounding the broader "leadership" field for all types of equality and diversity topics. For instance, I was surprised yet impressed to learn that the City of Boston has an Office for Women's Advancement. I eagerly signed up for one of their initiatives, that of taking part in one of the many free workshops held specifically for Boston women to hone negotiation skills. Around the same time as my participation in the workshop, I took note when this article was published on November 9th, catching my eye with the headline of "Women in full-time jobs 'work for nothing' until 2016", as well as noted this article with an equally eye-catching headline of "Gender pay gap will take 118 years to close." The math is easy - 118 years means the gender pay gap won't be achieved until 2133. Yes, the year, two thousand, one hundred, thirty-three. That number feels incomprehensible. Does it really take 43,070 days to achieve gender pay equality? Why? What else will be lost in that duration of time? And, furthermore, this is only the topic of gender equality. There are so many more biases that influence and impact our world in unequal ways. If it takes this long to resolve only the gender equality piece, how long will it take for humans to collectively address the other inequalities within our social ecosystems? 

Feeling motivated to want to do something to help the broader topic along, my colleague and I reached out to Megan Costello at the Mayor's Office to learn more about what's happening in Boston. (Side note: this initiative is really cool. Keep your eyes out for the important work she's doing.) In the short-term, we've just completed our negotiation training and will soon be leading free negotiation workshops as volunteers of the City of Boston. It's a small step .... yet I believe it's the momentum behind these small steps that eventually lead to a broader, systemic change. If I can play a small part in moving this discussion forward, sign me up.

Going back to the symposium at MIT, I was absolutely impressed with how the event was curated with such a diverse mix of speakers, including Prof Fiona Murray, Prof Iris Bohnet, Marie-Claude Nadeau, Jocelene Kwan, Dr. Robert Livingston, Erin Kelly, and Michelle Chalmers. The part that I most enjoyed was that the speakers didn't just talk "about" the issues surrounding gender bias, but rather each presenter showcased research studies, reports, and trends that successfully balanced ideas with tangible actions for making progress now and into the future.

Increasingly, there are more and more studies that put facts and figures at the center of understanding biases. However, three older studies were referenced multiple times throughout the day. The first was the Heidi vs. Howard study, where two groups of people were given the exact same example with only one difference - the main character in one group was "Heidi", and for the other, it was "Howard." This study illuminated the differences in how leadership successes and likability is viewed between genders. The second was a reference to this checkerboard image, illuminating how simply changing one's perspective can showcase similarities, and likewise can disprove what we hold as absolute. The third example referenced was of the "orchestra experiment" (which, as an aside, is not just an experiment; this is still the actual way of how orchestra members are selected), showcasing the dramatic change in orchestral gender make-up when auditions were held behind a screen. The intent of discussing this example was to showcase that solving issues of bias can be achieved through a change in environment (not just a broader change in mindset). 

If changing the environment is the best step towards reducing and eliminating bias, then how do we go about changing this in every step of our worlds? The presenters discussed the idea that every judgement we make is influenced by something. We cannot make a decision in absolute isolation, but rather we must force ourselves to compare two or more similar items when making a decision. For example, when hiring a new employee, a change in the interview environment could be: (1) blacking out names when reviewing resume and cover letters, in an effort to read only skills and qualifications without reference to gender; or (2) making a list of important questions to ask during the interview, and only asking these questions of candidates, to have an honest comparison of how answers were delivered between various individuals. (I'll be doing both of these during the upcoming interview process I'm leading!)

The day continued with the presentation of even more studies, including how gender bias creeps into self evaluations during yearly reviews, the importance of role models throughout leadership growth (and the relative lack of female role models), and a high-level brief of understanding diversity within diversity. Highlights of studies were presented that showcased biases within ethnicity, social class, sexuality, gender, and phenotype. The biases were further broken down, categorized into the "prove it again" bias (doubting competence in an individual), the "maternal wall" bias (bias against mothers with children), the "tug of war" bias (aka Queen Bee syndrome, where women are unjustly harsh towards other women), and "the tightrope" bias (walking the line between being liked but not respected, or respected but not liked). Many of the speakers advocated for using these studies towards creating more solutions and policies towards the elimination of bias, again driving towards changing the environment (not just the mindset) towards gender bias. Furthermore, each speaker supported the idea of being even more conscious to acknowledge issues of gender bias, recognizing that the friction of difference can also be used to bring a spark of creativity for creating change.

While there is so much more to learn and study surrounding this expansive topic, the speakers presented a very optimistic point of view with regards to where the future is headed. As we have all experienced at one time or another, substantial change is inevitably slow. Yet the speakers not only shared insights, but left us with ways to continue our learning, including following this website, resources throughout this HR website, and this newly-released book. In helping to further eliminate biases, the final speaker wrapped up the symposium by asking us all: what is the bias that lives within our own selves? Often, we have self-defeating stereotypes and/or self-imposed limitations that we consciously or unconsciously hold on to, which in turn limited our own possibilities for potential achievement. Recognizing these internal biases is the critical key towards making a broader, systemic, outward change in addressing biases. The mold can indeed be broken, yet the first step is within our own self.