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Amy Coney Barrett is Poised, but are Men Described as Poised? A Look at Unconscious Bias

Unconscious Bias

This year has brought a slate of challenges for businesses to navigate. A global pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy, causing many businesses to reduce their workforce, or to close entirely. While 2020 will always be remembered as the year of COVID-19, social justice has (rightly) shared much of the headlines. The struggles outlined by the Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted just how far we are from true racial equality in our society. Inequality is not only evident in the criminal justice system, but in the corporate world, as well. This imbalance is not only racial; gender bias in the forms of sexual harassment and pay inequality continue to be major problems that have gone largely unaddressed for decades.

...unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values.

The corporate response to these social justice issues has been encouraging. Organizations are addressing the need for diversity in their workforces and recognizing its importance. In an email to employees, Goldman Sachs recognized that “the strength of our culture, the execution of our strategy and our relevance to our clients depend on a truly diverse workforce and inclusive work environment.” A similar statement from Target outlined what they had done in the past, while also acknowledging that “the next step in this journey is being even more transparent with our progress by sharing a deeper look into the racial and gender diversity of our team, listening to our team’s feedback along the way and using this information to drive a number of new commitments for our team.”

Unconscious Bias Takes Many Forms

While it is reassuring that organizations are able to recognize the obvious and conscious discrimination that is prevalent in today’s society, it is equally important to identify the unconscious biases that silently hinder the progress toward true racial and gender equality. The University of California, San Francisco’s Office of Diversity and Outreach explains that “unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness.” They expound on this idea further stating that “unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values.” In other words, unconscious bias isn’t premeditated or malicious in intent. Rather, it is the result of living in a world that categorizes people based on conceived social norms.

As an example, our firm, The Alexander Group, was given its “masculine” name so as not to scare potential clients away due to the fact that our founder and her business partners were all females in a male-dominated industry. There are also examples of these unconscious biases in recent events. During the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett to be an associate justice, the nominee was praised for her “poise” under pressure. I would challenge you to think of the last time a man has been complimented on his poise. Similarly, much attention has been paid to the facial expressions of Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris during her debate with Vice President Mike Pence.

So, What Can We Do?

The efforts to correct these unconscious biases within an organization’s culture should begin with the recruiting process, and recruiting diverse talent goes beyond lip service on a company’s website. One important step is to ensure that the language in a job description doesn’t appeal only to a specific group of people. For instance, “dominant,” “competitive,” and “fast-paced” tend to attract more men than women. This does not mean that those words can’t be used, according to Forbes, but be sure to balance them with language that tends to resonate with women. Language “such as ‘loyalty’, ‘passion’, and ‘collaboration’ have been shown to appeal more to women."

...some organizations have made it their policy to practice blind recruiting.

One way to ensure that the language used is gender-inclusive would be to use a website created by software engineer Kat Matfield called the “Gender Decoder,” which scans your job posting for subtle linguistic cues. “Without realizing it, we all use language that is subtly ‘gender-coded’,” writes Matfield. “Think about ‘bossy’ and ‘feisty’: we almost never use these words to describe men.”

While writing a position description, avoid including criteria that may discourage qualified candidates from applying. A few years ago, Hewlett-Packard researched the reasons so few women were in positions of leadership within the company. They discovered that these women applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the role. Items to omit would be criteria such as years of experience or certain educational backgrounds from particular prestigious universities. Instead, clearly indicate that applicants do not need to precisely match all of the qualifications listed in the job description. This will yield a larger pool of candidates which could include someone who may not have graduated from a top-tier—or even a four-year—institution but, nevertheless, meets the professional qualifications.

Furthering these ideas, some organizations have made it their policy to practice blind recruiting. Deloitte, HSBC, the BBC, and Clifford Chance remove personal information from resumes during the recruiting process in order to combat unconscious bias. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that people with ethnic names had to submit 50 percent more resumes before receiving a callback compared to their white counterparts. By instituting blind recruiting, these companies have naturally increased their diversity, resulting in a workforce that more resembles their customer base.

This year has been defined by monumental change. Hopefully, an honest review of the systemic biases that are prevalent in our society will be one positive outcome of 2020.

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Kyle Robinson

Kyle J. Robinson

Director of Research