Understanding Implicit Bias & the Misguided Attack on DEI

Demonizing DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) programs seem to be the political rallying cry du jour.   Most recently, social media was flooded with suggestions that DEI initiatives somehow contributed to an improperly secured door flying off an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 jet. These completely unsubstantiated allegations implied that DEI initiatives led to hiring unqualified workers from historically underrepresented communities, whose incompetence in building the airplane led to the potentially catastrophic failure.

In addition to being factually unsupported, this line of attack demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of DEI initiatives and the unconscious behaviors that make such initiatives necessary – – to ensure that the most qualified individuals are being selected for positions. This, of course, is in addition to the overwhelming body of research confirming that diverse workforces are more creative, industrious, and, ultimately, more profitable.

To understand why the attack on DEI initiatives is wholly misplaced, one must understand implicit bias and how it unconsciously affects everyone’s decision-making. “Implicit bias” is commonly defined as attitudes or stereotypes that unconsciously affect our understanding, actions, and decisions. It is important to recognize that everyone has implicit bias. The challenge we all face is recognizing when this unconscious bias may influence our decision-making.

While a mountain of research confirms the unconscious impacts of implicit bias, several studies are worth briefly mentioning to illustrate the point. The first was a study evaluating the importance of the name appearing on a job application. In this study, identical individuals (experience, education, etc.) applied for jobs, with the only difference being the name on the resume – half had “typically white” names, and the other half had “typically black” names. The research revealed that individuals with “typically white” names received 50% more callbacks than applicants with “typically black” names. In fact, “typically white” named individuals received more callbacks than highly skilled “typically black” named applicants. The study found that “Jamal” required an additional eight years of experience to be considered as qualified as “Greg.”  Thus, the research overwhelmingly demonstrated that the most qualified individuals were not being offered jobs.

Another interesting body of research has looked at orchestras, which for decades have been overwhelmingly dominated by men, not just in the United States but internationally. In the US, the top orchestras were comprised of less than 5% women in the 1970s. These figures increased to 10% female representation in orchestras in the 1980s.   But by the later part of the 1990s, women’s representation in orchestras had grown to 25% and now nears and exceeds 40%. What changed? First, orchestras implemented blind auditions (musicians performing behind a screen). However, this change alone was not enough, as the clicking of women’s high-heeled shoes continued to influence hiring decisions. Thus, to get female musician representation in orchestras closer to gender parity, it required placing carpet on the stage or having musicians remove their shoes before walking on stage. Once this additional step was taken, the number of women in orchestras increased. Again, this research further demonstrated that implicit bias prevented the “best” musicians from being hired.

It bears repeating that everyone has implicit bias. And as the studies described above illustrate, these unknown biases unconsciously influence decision-making. As such, DEI initiatives are imperative as part of an effort to educate individuals to understand what implicit bias is. Only once this is done can organizations work to identify situations where implicit bias may be impacting decision-making. Only then can organizations take the steps necessary to eliminate or at least minimize the unconscious impact of implicit bias and ensure they are truly selecting the “most qualified person” for the job.

Nobody wants to acknowledge that they have biases that influence their decision-making to impact individuals from historically underrepresented groups negatively. But we all have implicit biases. So, the question is, now that you know you have implicit biases and they are unconsciously impacting your decision-making, what will you do about it?

Casey Johnson