Unconscious bias exists all over the world, whether in the workplace or out in the streets. Everywhere, people stereotype one another by gender, sex, race, age, ethnicity, ability, religion and sexual orientation, and then use these biases to justify substandard treatment, discrimination and outright abuse. In this episode, Debra sits down with Jessica Nordell to talk about bias. Jessica, a science writer with degrees in physics and poetry, recently published The End of Bias: A Beginning. Listen in as Debra and Jessica talk about gender bias in the workplace, specifically as it relates to women, and discover what Jessica learned from her simulation on workplace biases.
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Bias with Jessica Nordell
For this episode, we are talking about bias. What we have for you is a great interview with Jessica Nordell who is an American writer and science journalist. She is published in many places, including the New York Times, The Guardian, Washington Post, The Atlantic and many other places. She also has a new book out, which is primarily what we’re talking about called The End of Bias: A Beginning, which has been shortlisted for the 2021 Royal Society Science Book Prize and according to The Guardian is a groundbreaking analysis of bias and how to fix it. An important topic not just for workplaces but also our world in general.
Maybe possibly intergalactically. Who knows if bias reaches beyond the little atmosphere around this planet? I saw the piece about her work in the New York Times. What struck me is when she was looking to study bias that she writes in the book to quantify the cumulative impact of the bias. She realized that she had to create the data on her own because there have not been a lot of real-world longitudinal studies that look at people over a period of time and the impact of bias.
This piece in the New York Times showed in this interesting animation what happens for women over the arc of their careers when a 3% difference in how they are rated in performance reviews and the opportunities that are afforded to them impacts their careers over time. To me, many things are fascinating about this but the fact that we now have data that shows that bias is not just in our heads, that there are forces in work and outside of work that impact how women live their lives and experience their careers. I’m glad when you reached out to her after I shared the article with you that you were able to have this conversation with Jessica.
I was delighted that she agreed to do it. The conversation with Jessica and the book has showed me that there is so much data and science that shows we do have bias. To your point, the systemic nature of it has remained a little bit of a mystery in terms of how we show how this affects people over a period of time and in workplaces in particular. There are lots to learn and uncover. Let’s read this interview with Jessica and then you and I can talk some more about it.
Jessica, welcome to the show.
Thanks so much for having me.
I’m so glad you’re here. I just finished your book. I’m thrilled that you wrote it. I’m hopeful and depressed. It’s invoked a lot of different emotions and reactions to me but this is such important work at this time in our history to grow and understand around bias and how that’s impacting everyone and in all walks of our life.
One of the things that was interesting, that you illustrated so wonderfully, is as human beings, we all experience bias, much of it we are unaware of and that it can be about anything. It can be about age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race socioeconomic status. In fact, one of the most chilling lines in the book to me is where you said something about how we will all eventually experience discrimination. The disrespect that awaits the elderly. That’s a sad thought.
If we’re lucky. The alternative is to not age, which aging is better than the alternative.
On an emotional level, it’s disturbing and distressing when someone doesn’t fit into a stereotype.
It’s a one-way street, as they say. At the same time, it was an eye-opening thought. I certainly have seen people I’ve worked with, rather, experienced that in job search and their career. That will be a whole topic for another day on age-ism. There is so much research in the book around bias and how it’s impacting us.
I don’t want to spend a ton of time on it because to your point, that’s all well-researched and we want to move forward into other things—like solutions. Maybe you could give us a sense of the landscape around where the research is in terms of the existence of unconscious bias, if you would use that word. I know there are other words and the reasons for it.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that bias affects all of us all the time and across so many different aspects of social identity, gender, race, ethnicity, ability or disability, age, religion. There is copious research that shows the presence of this discrimination. There is an ongoing debate about unconscious versus conscious bias and how much people are oblivious to what they are doing and conscious and intentional. I have come to a place of calling it unexamined bias because that acknowledges the presence of bias and discrimination without necessarily trying to identify precisely whether it’s conscious or unconscious.
Sometimes it’s a combination and people might be aware to varying degrees. It’s in healthcare and education. In the US, we see Black students being penalized more for the same infractions as white students for instance. In healthcare, we see women’s symptoms being taken less seriously. We see less attention to pain for Black and Latino patients as compared to white patients. That’s true, even for children. We see it in policing and the workplace, where women and marginalized groups face myriad biases from not having their work valued equally, to being passed over for high visibility assignments, to being penalized for expressing personality traits that are considered unacceptable for their group.
It percolates into every aspect of life which can feel a bit daunting and depressing. The good news is that it’s something that we can work on and improve. It’s a human-created problem and so we can create human solutions for the problem, which was what the focus of my research was. How do we move on and move past this problem and try to tackle it in a meaningful way?
When an individual is identified with a certain group, there can be stereotypes related to that group that can impact the way that they are treated, for example. Also, when people deviate from the stereotypes of that group, they can be further discriminated against. That was very interesting in the research, that when you fit a stereotype, it seems like people are generally more accepting.
There is this distinction between descriptive and prescriptive stereotypes. Descriptive being stereotypes that describe a group. Prescriptive being stereotypes that insist on the way a group acts. There is interesting research about how the brain responds when people deviate from a stereotype because a stereotype is an expectation for how someone is going to behave.
There was research for instance found that when people deviated from expected stereotypes, the response was one of feeling cardiovascular distress on the part of the person who was expecting the stereotype. There is something very reassuring about someone fitting into our expected stereotypes, and a bit disturbing and distressing about someone not fitting into the stereotype on an emotional level.
I’m not a neuroscientist by any stretch but the bit I know about our brains is it does like to accurately predict the future in order to keep us safe at certainty and predictability. Our brain immediately goes into this, “potential danger.” I’d love for you to tell our readers the story of Ben Barres. That was interesting.
Ben Barres was/is an amazing person. Unfortunately, he passed away. He was a neurobiologist at Stanford who underwent a gender transition in his 40s. Leading up to the transition, he had been uncertain about how the scientific community would respond to him. Fortunately for him, he was in an environment that was very accepting of the fact that he had a transition—that’s not true universally—but it’s important to say that many trans people face enormous amounts of discrimination and prejudice. What he experienced was that people who did not know he was transgender, who just met him as Ben, treated him with more respect.
He found that he was given more deference in meetings. People didn’t interrupt him as much and took him at his word. They agreed with him more. In general, he found that his entire experience was elevated now that he was presenting to the world as a middle-aged White male scientist. What was interesting when I was talking to him was that he hadn’t detected a lot of sexism in the first part of his career. It wasn’t like he was seeing sexism everywhere and being distraught over it. He didn’t detect that much sexism until he had the opportunity to experience life without it.
At that point, all of these other experiences, which he had not noticed suddenly became illuminated to him, as not always avert, but ever-present devaluing of his ideas and experience. His story is so amazing because he illuminates the fact that gender bias is often experienced in ways that women don’t even necessarily identify because they don’t have anything to compare it to. He did. He had before and after experience, and was able to see what can be often invisible.
That’s interesting. You had a number of stories from the transgender community around this. His experience isn’t completely unique. There was another person who you talked about, Philip Guo, not transgender but experienced the more beneficial side of bias as well. Tell us a little bit about his situation.
He was interesting. I came across his story because he wrote about it quite a bit. I was a beneficiary of gender bias in my favor or potentially other kinds of bias. He was someone who went into the field of computer science, not knowing very much about the field. As a student, he found himself being given tasks in internships and research positions that he didn’t feel like he was qualified for but other people assumed that he knew what he was doing or qualified. At times he said, he would be quiet because someone would ask him a question and he didn’t know the answer, but other people would assume that he understood what was going on.
What Philip expressed was that he saw himself being given a lot of opportunities that some of his female classmates, for instance, were not given. I don’t think I included this in the book but he shared that he had a female classmate who also was in Computer Science and in an internship, but she was given mundane administrative tasks as part of her work. His experience was that he was seen as someone because of his background, who had some technical competence and was given the benefit of the doubt. Over time, he was given a lot of opportunities and did develop technical competence—and confidence in his technical skill.
It’s important to say here that while Philip Guo, who was a Chinese-American student at the time might have benefited in some ways from stereotypes around Asian-Americans and technical aptitude. It’s important to note that ‘model minority’ stereotypes also have a lot of negative consequences. They overlook things like the fact that people of Asian origin are subject to high rates of poverty, harassment, racism and myriad other harms. These things aren’t necessarily simple but many of these biases have multiple dimensions that we have to keep in mind all the time to understand how they work.
It is complex. That’s one thing that I got out of the book too is that we’re in a system that’s complex, we’re always interacting with another person, which makes the dynamic complex. There are a lot of layers to this. What is interesting is that stereotypes and prejudices can benefit some groups and are doing harm to others and that those things are both happening simultaneously. I feel like it’s widening the gap to some degree. If you’re a 6-foot-plus tall White man in the United States then you’re so much luckier seemingly than the rest of the population.
Gender bias is often experienced in ways that women don’t identify with because they don’t have anything to compare it to.
We’re going to get to workplaces, but you had this great stat at one point, which I’ve heard similar things before but I hadn’t heard it with the height part as well that 50% of the top ten Fortune 500 companies CEOs are white men over 6 feet. Only under 5% of the US population meets those criteria. What are the chances? Something interesting and complicated is going on. Let’s talk a bit about workplaces in particular and how biases are impacting women. We’re going to focus a little bit on women specifically because you did do some interesting specific gender bias research.
You talked a lot about people of color, LGBTQ and a lot of different angles have been investigated in this book. I want to talk about the research specifically on gender bias.
Before we get to that, I want to talk a little bit about the legal cases that you talked about in the US. You talked about two specifically, a woman named Ellen Pao who worked in the financial services sector, and a venture capitalist. Also, the Walmart class action lawsuit. Let’s talk a little bit about those because this brought to light for me, “We’re going to need the courts if there is going to be significant change. The courts and the legal system have a role to play in that.” This highlighted that for me.
I was fascinated by the Ellen Pao case from the very beginning. She was a junior partner at a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley and she was fired. She charged that gender discrimination had kept her from advancing and had ultimately led to her firing. She also experienced retaliation. The firm had ignored sexual harassment. What I was interested in was the less overt everyday acts of discrimination that she was subject to. For instance, she was excluded from a networking dinner with Al Gore because women “killed the buzz.”
She was criticized for being overly opinionated, but she was also criticized for needing to speak up more. She was undervalued. She maintained that her work wasn’t valued as much. What was interesting to me was that when the jury ultimately decided that gender discrimination was not a key factor in her firing. What was interesting was that they didn’t find a smoking gun. There wasn’t a moment where someone said, “We’re not going to promote Ellen Pao because she is a woman.”
That never happened at work but that’s what the legal system is set up to look for. What I was curious about was what is the true impact of these small, fleeting, everyday bias that women and so many other marginalized groups experience. It’s not generally someone coming in with an egregious offensive statement like, “You’re a woman and you’re not competent.”
No vagina shall hold the C-suite. Nobody is saying that overtly.
I don’t know if people are even consciously necessarily believing that but that’s the effect of these everyday acts, like excluding someone from a meeting or devaluing their work. Ellen Pao’s case was a great example of how our legal system is not adequate to the task of taking into account how bias plays out in the workplace, which is subtle, frequent, long-term but not necessarily attributable to one bad actor.
That was highlighted in this Walmart case too.
The Walmart case was on behalf of (me to confirm) 1.6 million female Walmart employees. They maintained that women were denied promotions, paid less than men, steered to low-wage positions. The proof was that there were massive disparities in men’s and women’s pay, and management positions in the company. What Chief Justice Antonin Scalia said was that the company could never reach those kinds of disparities without some coordinated effort on the part of managers to explicitly discriminate against women.
He also said this quote that I find quite hilarious which is, “Most managers in any corporation, and surely most managers in a corporation that forbids sex discrimination, would select a sex-neutral performance-based criteria for hiring and promotion that produce no actionable disparity at all.” Any of us who have had a job knows that managers do not always choose performance-based criteria to make decisions. This was another case that I found interesting because it seemed to be yet another example of the inability of our legal system to grapple with the way bias plays out every day for so many groups.
What’s going to change that? Do we need better science than to go in and present evidence of how systemic bias works? Is that what’s going to tip the scale?
I wish I had a silver bullet answer for how we could solve this. In some ways, a better understanding of the complex nature and cumulative nature of bias can help. The legal system is not necessarily the answer for every problem like this. As one civil rights lawyer put it to me while I was researching this book, the laws create a floor for how bad things can get but they don’t necessarily inform people’s everyday interactions with one another. You can’t litigate someone’s tone of voice or minute fleeting, unintentional, unexamined reaction to another person. I’m not sure if the law is the place to take this. Maybe it is.
I feel like it’s a combination of things but certainly the law recognizing these systemic barriers would certainly go a long way. Certainly, if we would ideally have the most supposedly advanced minds who are making the law of the land have this understanding would be amazing. It’s the floor, not the ceiling. We have to tackle this from a lot of different angles. Let’s talk about Norm Corp. This is how I first came to find you because I saw an article talking about this particular experiment or piece of research, the simulation that you created in partnership with some computer scientists. Tell us about that. I might have some questions as we go to dig into it.
When I was doing the research, I found myself getting frustrated because when bias is explored from a scientific standpoint, it is expressed at one moment in time, a snapshot. A typical study to demonstrate the presence of bias might have identical resumes, one with a male name, one with a female name, you show them two different groups of people and then you compare how people respond to the identical resume when it has a man’s name or a woman’s name. That’s just one moment in time.
We can say there is bias at the moment of someone evaluating a resume or someone doing a performance evaluation or assigning an assignment. In the real world, bias is cumulative, repeated and frequent. What I couldn’t find was an answer to the question that I had, which is, what is the cumulative impact of repeated experiences of bias and discrimination? That is what was missing from these legal cases because the jurors in Ellen Pao’s case couldn’t make the leap between understanding that there were biases that Ellen Pao faced every day, and the fact that ultimately it had an extreme consequence.
The laws create a floor for how bad things can get, but they don’t necessarily inform people’s everyday interactions with one another.
What I did was I teamed up with a computer scientist to develop a simulation of a workplace. We created something called an agent-based model, which is where you set up a simulated environment and then create agents, individual entities within that environment and give them a certain specific sets of rules to follow. You start the simulation and watch what happens as these agents interact with each other. We created a workplace. It’s a simple workplace where it starts out with 50/50 men and women. There are eight levels of hierarchy. They do something very simple.
They do a project and then either succeed or fail, they get a boost in their score, which determines how promotable they are. Every so often the people with the highest scores get promoted to the next level. What we did was we created the simulation and then we introduced a handful of the most common gender biases that women face at work. We were looking at gender bias in particular. We introduced a very small amount of bias and then watch what happened over time.
You chose five well-established and well-researched biases that women face. Let’s talk briefly about what each one of those was.
We looked at the devaluation of women’s performance. Devaluation of women’s performance means that when women and men perform equally, women’s work is seen as slightly less valuable equivalent work from men—that the value of their work is given is discounted. We included the fact that women are more penalized for errors. There is research, for instance, that finds that when women surgeons have a bad outcome, it negatively affects their ability to get referrals much more than if a male surgeon has a negative outcome. We looked at how credit is assigned.
There is research that shows that when men and women work together on something, people assume that women didn’t contribute as much so they get less credit for the work. We looked at the personality penalty. Women being panelized or seen as less likable for behavior that deviates from stereotypically feminine behavior, things like self-promotion, advocating for oneself being seen as aggressive or assertive.
We looked at what we call the opportunity bias, which refers to the fact that, as Joan Williams has pointed out, women are evaluated often on the basis of past performance. Whereas, men are evaluated on the basis of potential for future performance. When high visibility assignments are handed out, women are often overlooked for big stretch assignments or assignments that might move someone beyond their current skillset. Those were the five big biases that we factored into our simulation.
I can’t explain it the way you to talked about it in the book because it’s a bit complicated. You had a way that each time there was a project that failed or succeeded and each time there was a promotion cycle that there was a 5% detraction.
Every time when we had a female and male agent succeed, they both got a boost in their score but the female agent got 3% less of a boost in their score. When the male agent and the female agent worked together on a project sometimes we assign them together, the female agent would get 3% less credit for working on that project than the male agent. Every time someone was evaluated, we injected a little bit of gender bias into the way that they were evaluated.
Three percent doesn’t sound like a lot. Big deal. Work a little harder. We can overcome this. What happened?
We found that when we looked at those five biases, over twenty promotion cycles, we ended up with a workplace where the highest level was 82% men. It was the frequency of these small amounts of bias that resulted in this huge stratification. We added one more bias, which is the fact that as the gender disparity increases, the stereotyping against women also increases. We added that once the disparity was above a certain point, we bumped up the bias from 3% to 5%. When we did that then we ended up with a top tier of the workplace that was 87% men.
This is pretty much reflected in the real world because what we know is at about the age of 40, women’s careers tend to plateau. Men don’t plateau until the age of 55, that’s fifteen years of your highest incoming earning years as well. The further we go up the ranks, the fewer women that we see. That’s just there. We know that to be true.
Bias from a scientific standpoint is expressed as one moment in time. But real-world bias is cumulative, repeated, and frequent.
This is maybe some helpful insight into why that’s happening because what else would it be? This is what I get annoyed by. Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments, I’m getting irked because what else would it be? The onus of proof seems to be so disproportionally on the marginalized groups. Otherwise, what is it? It’s women or what? What is their point of view?
Scalia mused in the opinion that he gave that maybe there were different qualifications. Women were less qualified and had fewer credentials. Something else I hear is, maybe women aren’t as ambitious. They’re not as competitive to which I say, have you seen a women’s Olympic sports team? I don’t think that women suffer a deficit of competitiveness or ambition. No one likes to think that bias and discrimination are endemic.
I want to go to this idea of meritocracy. Anything else about this experiment that we should know or that we didn’t cover?
Something else that I want to mention is that it’s important to bring an intersectional analysis to this as well and to acknowledge that women from different groups do experience gender bias in different ways. There is a lot of interesting research about that as well. For instance, Black women face more harassment at work than any other group. They report higher rates of exclusion than any other group of women or men. There are also studies that show that Black women are not perceived as negatively for displaying a dominant behaviour as white women.
There is also research that Asian women may face the most penalty for behaving in assertive or self-promoting ways. There are differences. These biases may be dialed up or down for women of different groups. We haven’t even talked about age, disability, religion or all these other groups. I want to be careful that we’re not making a blanket statement that women all face identical biases. That’s not true, but these biases are present in some way for women no matter what group they’re in.
That points us that it could be worse than even your experiment for many women, depending on the intersectionality of these other factors like race and ethnicity being a significant one. There are other factors compounding that could make this even more significant than it already is, which is significant to see that type of change over the course of whatever it was. That simulation roughly mirrored a ten-year span in the company. What do you think then of organizations and leaders who claim, “We operate based on merit?” We get this argument. We hire and promote people based on merit, bottom line.
Everyone thinks that they are less biased than everybody else. There is research that shows that believing in one’s own objectivity can itself be a predictor of more discriminatory behavior. What I would say to a leader who says, “We’re not biased. We never discriminate,” I would encourage them to think again and be open to the idea that we are all susceptible to behaving in ways that conflict with our values. I would particularly point them to research about homophily. This is something that is endemic in the workplace. Homophily means love of the same. This describes the phenomenon so frequently encountered, which is that people favour, promote and encourage others who are a lot like themselves.
We see this in the workplace all the time. Someone getting a special dispensation because the boss sees themselves in this person or someone is hired. Maybe they are not quite as qualified but the boss recognizes themselves in this person and they moved along. I would say to a leader, “Don’t take this personally but your company is in some ways expressing bias. It’s not a matter of if but how and where. If you want the company to be a place where everyone can thrive, do their work and be their best selves at work then it’s important to systematically identify places where bias might be rearing its head.”
Do you think meritocracy even exists? If we had a meritocracy, in most professions, we would have equal representation.
No, the way that the current workplaces are set up. Our society is also not meritocratic. Meritocracy is its own topic. The concept itself was a satirical concept when it was introduced. It’s hard to define what is merit. How do you describe and define it? Who benefits from those definitions? We would obviously see a society that’s much less stratified if we had a truly meritocratic society, which we don’t have.
Let’s talk about some possible solutions. The book is also hopeful and we want to think about ways to move forward both on an individual level and more systemic level. This is a debate that I always have internally in my mind and sometimes with other people because that’s part of what I grapple with. This is an individual thing. Individuals need to do their own work. They need to work on their self-awareness and emotional intelligence.
Certainly we would hope that leaders are working on this. The future of leadership development is exactly just that. It’s working on those things. There are also these broader systemic issues that need to be addressed. What have you concluded from all of this research is the best approaches? Are there different solutions, depending on is it individuals or the system?
The reason that I wrote this book was to answer that question like how do we solve this problem? There are a lot of approaches that have good evidence behind them that show changes as a result. I can talk about some of them. Some of them include things like creating a clear objective and transparent criteria for making everyday business decisions. Whether that’s hiring, making promotion decisions, the decisions that go into assigning high profile projects, making sure that those criteria are consistent and objective and that everybody knows what they are is an extremely helpful way to combat bias. They say sunlight is the best disinfectant. If everybody knows how you get from point A to point B and what the criteria are, then there are fewer places to hide for bias and discrimination.
Transparency comes up all the time in businesses that transparency is something people are looking for. It’s something they want and leaders and in the decision-making. It’s hugely important.
It’s surprising how rare it is for someone to have access to the criteria that are being used to evaluate them for a promotion. It’s less common than you would think to have access to that transparency. Objectivity and transparency are important. One conclusion that I came to look at a bunch of case studies and examples of how change happens was that ultimately, it’s the mindset of the leaders that is the most significant predictor.
One of the companies that I profiled was a French law firm that ended up achieving a balance in equity partners of 50% women, which is unheard of. In the United States, it’s 18% of equity partners are women. The reason was that the CEO of this organization understood that it was essential to the functioning and success of the organization that everyone be treated fairly, given equal access and opportunities to develop and advance. It wasn’t seen as an act of noblesse oblige on his part. It was seen as a business imperative. As a result, he put in place exactly what we’re talking about, transparency and objectivity. He ended up doing a lot of mentorship and sponsorship of women himself.
He gave women the opportunity to go back to their previous position if they didn’t like the new promotion so you can minimize the risk for them. He was motivated to do all of the things necessary to create a better environment for women to be as successful as men. It came from the top. That’s the secret sauce. That’s a level of wisdom and understanding that you can’t legislate. The main determinant of whether these approaches are implemented and whether they are successful.
That is encouraging and discouraging at the same time because affecting the mindsets of leaders is something that’s challenging to do especially when people have been promoted and gotten into those leadership roles for the kinds of behaviors that we’re trying to now stop. Let’s talk a little bit about the role that mindfulness and meditation have played in what you’ve seen in your research.
One of the risk factors for acting in a biased way is cognitive load. The amount of strain on one’s mind can influence how likely a person is to apply stereotypes. What mindfulness meditation can do is decrease some of that cognitive load and create space for reflection, a pause. Instead of being so immediately reactive to what we see or to who we see, we can start to slow down, observe our mind and express agency in how we’re going to react to another person. The case study that I chose in order to look at mindfulness and meditation was a group of police officers in Oregon who have identified it as a way to combat aggression in the police.
There are some early promising studies that have found that after an eight-week course of consistent meditation, they see things like less aggression, less emotional dysregulation, better sleep, fewer angry outbursts. In general, it seems to create a level of resilience in police officers that then trickles down into the community they serve and allows them to interact in a more just, fair and life-affirming way with the community. One of the things that I did was go to one of these retreats where officers are taught these skills and there was a lot of resistance.
As the gender disparity increases, the stereotyping against women also increases.
Some officers were open to it and some could not countenance the idea that there was something wrong with them, they had become dehumanized, which is what happens in the policing profession. One of them said, “If you need this, you’re weak. I’m fine. I’m happy. Leave us alone,” was a lot of what was expressed at that retreat. It showed me that there are approaches that can work but the question is, how do you introduce them? How do you get them socialized? How do you bring them in? Another big conclusion that I came to after the process of writing this book was that there are a lot of interventions that can work.
There are a lot of approaches that change behaviour, but it’s not as easy as introducing an intervention and watching it do its magic. There is this question of socializing the intervention, bringing it into an organization in a way that creates buy-in that allows people to get excited about it. That requires having a well-respected person introduce the intervention, approach and program. Having someone who is popular, who people look up to, who has a lot of status and cloud. It’s complicated to make these kinds of changes. It involves a lot of human-level decision-making and strategy.
I bring it up in the context of policing because among the police who had adopted this approach, what I found consistently was they said, “So-and-so recommended it and I respected him so I decided to give it a try.” When we talk about systemic solutions, we have to keep that in mind. How do we introduce these things in a way that creates buy-in and a sustainable momentum so that there isn’t backlash and resistance to approaches that can work and change people?
The word trust came to mind for me. They have to trust the source. It’s, “Who is suggesting this? Do I trust that person?”
That’s about relationships. It’s not about laws or policy.
It also highlights for me the need for allies that are willing to be well-informed about these issues and use their influence or power to help this movement move forward. Maybe part of what needs to happen is there needs to be a way to start identifying certain people to say, “Can you be a leader in this? We need more people to lead this.”
It’s powerful. There is interesting research that the psychologist, Betsy Levy Paluck has done about network effects and how popular individuals can have a massive ripple effect on the networks and behavior of people around them because we’re very influenced by norms and what we see as being the popular and right thing to do and when we see other people doing something that influences what we decide to do. If people who are well-respected and popular are behaving in a certain way, can have a big impact on an entire community around them.
There is something in our brains that wants that psychological safety or something of, “If that person’s doing it, it must be okay.”
Believing in one’s own objectivity can itself be a predictor of more discriminatory behavior.
Social proof. It also speaks to how important it is to speak up when you see something that’s not right or a violation of standards and values to speak up because that also helps create a norm for everybody who is observing at the moment as well.
That is shifting in the workplace. Certainly, we see Millennials doing more of speaking up, in general. They’ve been criticized extensively for it because they speak up about imbalance at work, projects they want and don’t want. They advocate way more for themselves. It troubles me the extent that they’ve been criticized for that because I wish I was one of them. I wish I was raised to speak up for myself more. Some people will laugh when I say that and argue that I always do.
However, I feel like I’ve bitten my tongue a lot along the way as well. Workplaces are shifting and more people are starting to think strategically about, “If I want to bring up an issue, how can I do that? What’s the most politically savvy way to do that? How can I pull in some allies?” It’s going to be incumbent on leaders to prepare themselves for this onslaught of change.
People are becoming much more particular about where they work and what they want out of the experience of their work as is evidenced by this new term that’s been coined the Great Resignation that we’re seeing. Maybe more so in the US but also here in Canada, people are re-evaluating work. Issues related to diversity, equality and inclusion are almost central to that, I would argue. Anything else you think leaders should know before we wrap?
There is a huge amount to gain by making sure that everyone has access to a fair and unbiased workplace. Workers are more engaged. People can do their jobs. There is more trust and less turnover. There is nothing to lose but your chains. There is a huge amount of advantage and a lot of exciting opportunities to create more inclusive workplaces.
I 100% agree with that because we’ve been missing out on and so much of what people could offer and we’re all worse off for it. Jessica, I can’t thank you enough for doing this. The book is amazing. I wish you all the best of luck with it. It’s been a real pleasure speaking to you about this.
Thank you so much for having me. I’ve enjoyed talking to you too.
That was a rich conversation. I was captivated by the conversation you were having with Jessica around the storytelling. There is data and stories. The first one, when she’s talking about this nuclear scientist, Ben Barres, who experienced in the same lifetime and in the same body but in different genders. The difference in treatment and appreciation that people had for his work. To me, that’s an incredible example of how bias manifests itself, regardless it’s the same brain, yet the physical body filters or communicates so strongly beyond the work that the person does.
I thought that was a powerful example to kick things off. Where I was interested in what Jessica was talking about was, I talk about the storytelling but how in particular, it’s the repetitive, continuous, small acts of bias and either lack of visibility, this erosion over time. It’s not these big acts of very concrete discrimination but these ways of people interacting with one another that might even be invisible to those of us on the receiving end but that have this incredible impact over the course and quality of our lives. As you and I talk about the way we experience our careers, tell me Debra, when you were talking with Jessica, what stood out for you?
It started me thinking, especially on the gender piece specifically because, you brought up the story of Ben Barres and there are lots of other stories in the book and certainly even a transgender experience. His is not the only example. A lot of this might be subconscious, unconscious, unintentional but everyone in that child’s life and everyone in our society, both for the most part treats boys and girls differently from the moment we arrive depending on what’s between our legs.
We start experiencing the world a little bit differently. What hairstyle is appropriate? What clothes are appropriate? What activities might be appropriate? What colors am I allowed to wear? What colors put me at risk of being teased? All of these things is it any wonder that by the time we get to adulthood, we already have very well-formed ideas about the package that someone shows up in and therefore what their capabilities and interests might be. What are those rules based on a bunch of arbitrary things, if you think about it.
One of the things that has always intrigued me—and especially when you look at some of Jessica’s data that came out of the simulation—was when women and men are evaluated for promotions, it’s women’s past experience that is looked at as the determination of whether or not she should be allowed to take on a bigger assignment versus for men, the data shows that they’re looked at as what’s their opportunity to grow. Even when we’re looking at two qualified candidates, by virtue of the difference between men and women, in the form that we show up in, that as much as we would like to believe that we neutrally assess people for their skills and contributions, the biases are built into absolutely everything we do.
Here is an interesting thing, bias doesn’t necessarily need to be bad. It is bad a lot of the time but we can have positive biases as well. Where we get into trouble is when the particular bias views one person or a representation of a group more favorably and acts in a way that is unfair to another group. That’s where bias shows its true colors in terms of its negative impact on people’s lives. I didn’t read in Jessica’s book but I recall reading a piece of research a few years back that when you looked at the quality of feedback that women receive in the workplace, it’s more often about who they are and their personalities. Men receive feedback that is more about how they do something that’s actionable, that they can change it.
For instance, a woman might be called aggressive as opposed to, “Maybe, Lisa, there are some times in which your tone conveys an anger that you might not be aware of.” That’s the feedback I can act on but if I’m told, “Lisa you’re too aggressive.” What do I do with that? Women typically are on the receiving end of biased feedback over the course of their careers as well. There are so many things to dig into here. Where would you like to take this?
It’s interesting that one piece that you brought up because she talked a little bit about how race then intersects with some of these biases towards women. For example, how aggression from Black women is more tolerated isn’t regarded as negatively but not true for Asian women. For Asian women, it’s even worse. One of the things that struck me is that how we could be biased on anything that we think causes separation. You’re a blue-eyed person and I’m a brown-eyed person. That might be something that we could find separateness in.
We need people to come to a point where instead of jumping to defensiveness, we can say, “This is natural. This is everywhere.” It’s not necessarily serving us and we can do better. We know that we’re capable of better. There are lots of examples in her book where people did do better but it’s about growing and awareness. She talked a lot about the mindfulness piece. She had some specific examples of that but a lot of it is I’m relating it to mindfulness and meditation, taking that small break when you catch yourself possibly making an assumption and taking that moment and creating that space to think, “Is this accurate? What assumptions might I be making? Is there another way to think about this?”
Being open-minded and open-hearted about that. This is also where mindfulness practice could play a huge role is being self-compassionate, self-aware and self-compassionate to say, “I fucked up there.” What do we do when we screw up? Do we run away from it? Do we get defensive? Do we lean into it and say, “I’m sorry, I screwed up. That’s okay because I’m human. It’s not my intention. I’m going to try to do better and maybe you can help me. Lisa, tell me more about being raised as a blue-eyed person.” Let’s have some humility and humbleness. We’re going to make mistakes without being afraid of being canceled.
The raison d’etre for this book and other people who work and gather this data and study these things, Jessica sums it up so beautifully is that the reason we want to understand bias, dismantle it and she quotes because it robs fields of talent. It robs companies of ideas and cultures of progress. Where are the breakthroughs and science that we need, art, literature, wisdom and politics?
If we only have a small group that is allowed on our planet to express their thoughts, feelings and to create the artifacts of our culture, we are not allowing for the broad depth and breadth of, first of all, the human experience and human potential. We’re also not tapping into the knowledge and wisdom that we need to solve the serious problems that you and I keep coming back to around the environment or our communities might be breaking down along divisive lines.
You and I often bring a personal anecdote when we’re having these conversations. This was going a little bit back in my life where I had thought that because I grew up English-speaking in the province of Quebec in Canada that I understood what it meant to be discriminated against because I was different, first of all. Physically I’m taller, my parents are German. My facial bone structure looks more European, blonde, blue-eyed. When I did speak French, I at the time spoke with an accent.
I thought this gave me plenty of personal data and information around what it meant to be discriminated against. I was completely blind to what it meant for people of color or religions that were not Christian. I have to say, a bit of a painful awakening to have in my face so clearly that my experience of feeling discriminated against—or having lived with some bias—was one of many different types of bias that people can experience. Maybe not as traumatic as other kinds of bias that women of color or transgender, people with disabilities.
When you talk about that mindfulness piece, part of it is to let go of the tightness around our narrative and to allow that our story exists and we experienced what we have experienced, and it’s had an impact on us but to go beyond that, to stretch or lead into a world in which bias is very painful and beyond traumatic. People are killed because of biases. People are withheld from all kinds of opportunities in life because of biases.
What makes me hopeful in all of this is part of what Jessica has discovered in the course of doing this work is that biases are learned. Anything that is learned with time and effort can be unlearned. We can unravel what got us into some of these places but it’s not an easy process. It does take some personal as well as systemic work.
On the personal work part of it, what has not been largely talked about but plays a role is that there is a grieving process that we need to appreciate and understand. Coming into acceptance that we live in a society that has prejudice, treats people very differently and has sometimes horrible outcomes. What’s coming to mind for me and you might be able to speak to this with a little bit more astuteness because you usually do but I’m reminded of 2020 in Canada, the bodies of over 200 indigenous children were found on the sites.
This is where I might forget some of the facts and you might remember them more than I do. Over 230 children in the beginning in a sense it’s been more on the sites of residential schools that came at a time when we’ve had almost a two-year period of a number of significant events in the United States and in Canada that have shunned a light on parts of our history that we have to reckon with. The roots of this are in bias. Coming to terms with that as a White person is that you have to grieve. Not to say that I should take on shame about it but at the same time, there is a grieving of what I thought this country was. Facing the truth of something can be hard and painful. It’s part of the process though.
Being emotional is the most appropriate response. When I think of promises that governments, including our Canadian government, have made around reconciliation that have fallen through. There is being blind when we don’t know. We’re blind and ignorant but when we know and we still choose to not actually. That’s the invitation in this book, The End of Bias, to say it’s a beginning. We are at the beginning of starting to process the pain of the effects of all of these biases.
It’s one thing to have bias over a preference. There are lighter versions of bias versus what happened in residential schools in Canada with indigenous children. We are talking about acts that are deplorable. The word tragic doesn’t come anywhere near it. The effects of bias are maybe subtle in some cases but we as a society are all a part of coming to terms with the fact that human beings don’t often treat other human beings very well when there is a difference between them.
I was reading something about an indigenous writer who was saying it’s so interesting, this idea of being called savages. That there was something about us that was unruly that needed to be tamed versus the freedom that we had to live on the planet, elements, animals, in a relationship and to have that by a word savage be taken away from us. There are examples of this all over the world. We use language as a way to anchor bias. I sometimes find myself struggling over what word I should be using because I’ll know that a particular word is out of favor. We used to say Aboriginal, now we say Indigenous.
There are many other instances of that. Sometimes people are afraid to talk about their biases because they’re afraid of being revealed for not having the right language or not saying it in the right way. I’ve heard you say, we need to bring a bit of grace to these conversations around releasing ourselves from having to get it right as we’re learning, all of us in some way to dismantle these systems and mindsets of bias that are preventing us from capturing, surfacing and building on the wisdom that we have as a race that’s been around for quite some time.
A little grace goes a long way. The point I would emphasize there is we’re all figuring this out in real-time, flying by the seat of our pants but hopefully with the intention to be aware, awake, observant, curious and the intention to do better. When you reflect on the conversation and on the reading that you’ve done, where do you see people either like you, me or our readers being able to do something different? That we are breaking this unconscious bias that even with the best of intentions bring into our interactions with people who are different from us.
A couple of things come to mind. One is stretching ourselves to be that bit more open-minded, open-hearted and curious about people, their backgrounds, situations, upbringing and to catch ourselves. I’m a firm believer in the value of that. That goes a long way in understanding that value of that observer’s mind questioning our thoughts, knowing that we are not our thoughts that there is a being behind that. We are all human beings after all.
Questioning the idea of separateness because an important part of our evolution moving forward whether it’s in businesses, workplaces or in general as a society is recognizing that we’re all interdependent on one another. Whether we like it or not, we are now a global society and living sustainably on our planet is going to require a recognition that we’re part of the same ecosystem. Dismantling this idea of separateness and looking for ways in which we have things in common and recognizing that sometimes differences can be lovely.
We can learn from one another and sometimes differences are hard. There are people sitting around Thanksgiving tables thinking about all the topics that they need to avoid talking about because there are hard differences sometimes. We need to find a way to speak to one another with compassion, respect and appreciation for some of those differences. We need to resolve our conflicts and differences in a way that is civil. We have a lot of uncivil behavior going on. It’s deeply concerning, the degree of uncivility that we see happening.
The stuff that you learned in kindergarten or that hopefully your parents taught you is that you have to learn to disagree and resolve your differences in a way that doesn’t involve resorting to being mean, bullying and sometimes violent. Leaning into conversations in a respectful way. Being led by curiosity and non-judgment is important. That’s self-work that we need to encourage people to do, especially leaders because the one thing that struck me at the end of our conversation, Jessica and I, is she said, “The biggest thing is leader’s mindset.” I was both somewhat vindicated when she said that because I thought, “That’s what you and I have been talking about for a long time.”
I was a little bit discouraged by it because if we’re relying on the mindset of leaders then we need to think about who gets into leadership. Where organizations have a huge, important role to play is evaluating. What do we need in leaders? We need leaders who can have that level of humility and are willing to be vulnerable and to do that self-work that needs to be done. You have to be open to your personal growth and development. If you’re not open to that then you’re assuming you already have all the answers and I don’t think we do.
We certainly don’t have all the answers. We’ve undergone a massive shift in what we consider to be work. We still have work that needs to be done with people’s hands. When we talk about knowledge workers, you’re working with human being brains, it requires all leaders to treat all employees with tact and respect. Particularly when we’re talking about people who do work in offices, who are doing productive, creative work, we need to bring a relational component to it that is not about the boss being right.
It’s about what are the conditions do we all need to co-create in order to bring about the work that needs to happen. The one thing that you were talking a moment about is the leaders doing their individual work. We all need to be doing that but I agree if we’re going to be putting people in positions of leadership. It behooves us to put people in there who are not just hired for their incredible technical skills, for their ability to be great in an interview or if they have been on the receiving end of 3% more favorable bias over the course of their career.
We need to look at what is the world we’re trying to create and who is going to help us get there. One of the things that struck me that Jessica touched on was when she said, “Working across difference and increased diversity can bring up more conflict but we can’t allow our discomfort with conflict to prevent us from creating environments for all kinds of different people to do great work together.”
There is a risk in keeping up with the homogeneous ways of thinking and bringing people together. If we get along better, that’s fine but if it doesn’t spark the creativity and innovation that we need then I don’t think there is any case to be made for. Let’s keep the same people in the positions of power with the ways we’ve been developing them. This needs a wholesale rethinking and frankly, a bit of a revolution.
That says it all. Welcome to the revolution. Until next time.
About Jessica Nordell
Jessica is a writer and science journalist with a background in physics and poetry. Her first book THE END OF BIAS: A BEGINNING has been shortlisted for the 2021 Royal Society Science Book Prize and explores the science and psychology of unexamined bias and discrimination; rich with both stories and evidence-based approaches to ending it. Jessica’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, and the Washington Post.