The ABCs of Breaking Bias

I recently attended a lecture hosted by the Athena Collective entitled the ABCs of Breaking Bias. The guest speaker was Dr. Stefanie Johnson, from the University of Colorado at Boulder. This is such an important topic, because understanding unconscious bias, and how we can keep it in check, is fundamental to getting the best talent to take on the challenges in our companies, organizations and communities.

I was glad to see that the audience was made up of men and women of many ethnic backgrounds and ages. Dr. Johnson helped us all to see that unconscious bias is in all of us. It is primal, rooted in the tendency of humans to observe the world around them and unconsciously use the data collected to make thousands of micro-decisions every day–decisions that may or may not be sound, depending on that individual’s experiences. Women exhibit gender bias just as men do. Minorities make biased decisions based on race each day. No one can be totally free of unconscious bias, but Dr. Johnson presented four easy ways to rein it in with her “ABCs” of breaking bias:

A is for Admit it. As mentioned above, we all exhibit unconscious bias, so let’s just admit it without blame or shame. I would add to the A-list two more words: raise awareness when you observe unconscious bias and address it.

B is for Blind it. The Boston Symphony became the poster-child for blinding unconscious bias when it began using blind auditions in an effort to test gender bias on its hiring of musicians. They started by holding auditions behind a curtain, and even went so far as to have musicians remove their shoes, since the clicking of women’s heels even tipped off the hiring committee as to their gender. The result ? The blind auditions increased a woman’s chances of moving past the first audition by 50%, and accounts for 30% of female new hires, according to a research study in the American Economic Review. Similar “blinding actions” can be taken by companies, educational institutions, and healthcare professionals by removing names and other bias-tipping factors from resumes, reviews, records and recommendations.

C is for Count it. What gets measured gets done, so if we can quantify how unconscious bias negatively affects our workplaces, we can make the case for change. For example, tracking metrics on the diversity of candidates before and after implementing blind screening practices can be a great way to demonstrate that unconscious bias exists. It’s equally important to show data to motivate policy makers to  invest in a more diverse talent pool. Fortunately, an increasing number of reliable research studies point to strong correlations between diversity positive key performance indicators.

S is for Support it. Humans find safety in sameness, so human nature causes us to surround ourselves with people like us. Yet we know that it’s the diversity of any ecosystem that defines its strength and longevity. Workplaces, educational institutions, and communities are no exception. One of the most frequently cited studies supporting diversity is Why Diversity Matters from McKinsey & Company. While the study asserts that the link between diversity and high performance is a correlation, and not necessarily causation, there is a very strong, logical case that diversity gets more talent to the table and helps teams avoid “group think” in important decisions.

Even if we stop short of making sweeping organizational changes to address unconscious bias, each on of us can check our own biases on a daily basis. For example, when describing a person, how often do you include details about gender, race, or age, even when they are absolutely irrelevant to your story? Double-check that you are not somehow implying something unintentional. Consider the images conjured in your mind when you read the following:

  • I was behind this old guy parking his car.
  • I was behind this woman parking her car.
  • I was behind this black man parking his car.
  • I was behind a business man parking his car.

Based on the fact that the speaker qualified who was parking the car, we immediately form a stereotype of the story to follow. Having qualified who was parking the car may reinforce the unconscious bias that an old person, woman, or black man would not park a car as well as the business man, when in fact, those things have nothing to do with that individuals ability to park a car. Why not simply say, “I was behind this person parking their car and noticed that the gas cap was open.”

Admit bias, blind it, count it and support efforts to counter it. Dr. Johnson’s “ABCs” for breaking bias are great building blocks for more diversity in our workplaces and communities.




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