So you’re biased…

Which you almost certainly are, if you’re a human being. And you’re hiring. And there’s really good evidence that bias can affect hiring. So what’s a well-intentioned person to do? We’ll be having a series of posts on strategies. One place to start might be by asking what an expert on implicit bias does to overcome her own biases. It’s interesting:

Mahzarin Banaji, one of the discoverers of implicit bias, knows that her explicitly egalitarian beliefs are not enough to overcome her biases so she takes conscious efforts:

ALMOST FROM THE MOMENT BANAJI TOOK THAT FIRST RACE TEST, she says, she has applied her research to her own life. Her office at Harvard is testimony. At eye level on a bookshelf are postcards of famous women and African Americans: George Washington Carver, Emma Goldman, Miles Davis, Marie Curie, Frederick Douglass and Langston Hughes. During one interview, she wore a brooch on her jacket depicting Africa. What might seem like political correctness to some is an evidence-based intervention to combat her own biases, Banaji says.

People’s minds do not function with the detachment of machines, she says. For example, when she was recently asked to help select a psychologist for an award, Banaji says, she and two other panelists drew up a list of potential winners. But then they realized that their implicit biases might have eliminated many worthy candidates. So they came up with a new approach. They alphabetically went down a list of all the psychologists who were in the pool and evaluated each in turn.

“Mind bugs operate without us being conscious of them,” Banaji says. “They are not special things that happen in our heart because we are evil.”

But assumptions lead to attitudes, and attitudes lead to choices with moral and political consequences. So, whether she is in a classroom or a grocery store, Banaji says, she forces herself to engage with people she might otherwise have avoided.

Just before Halloween, Banaji says, she was in a Crate & Barrel store when she spied a young woman in a Goth outfit. The woman had spiky hair that stuck out in all directions. Her body was pierced with studs. Her skull was tattooed. Banaji’s instant reaction was distaste. But then she remembered her resolution. She turned to make eye contact with the woman and opened a conversation.

Some strategies, then, to come out of this…

In general– Be aware of your own biases, and make conscious efforts to overcome them while you’re thinking about who to hire:

(1) Give an extra chance to people that evidence suggests you may be setting aside too quickly. Look more closely.

(2) Think about how your procedure for looking at applications could be improved, perhaps by reflecting on how Banaji decided to consider candidates for the award. (I’m not sure what concrete suggestion to make here– any thoughts?)

(3) It sounds cheesy, but there seems to be good evidence that it works (see quoted bit here): surround yourself with images of those you are likely to be biased against.

For more reading on the topic, go here. We’ll have more strategic suggestions shortly…

5 thoughts on “So you’re biased…

  1. Thanks for keeping this before our eyes!

    I vividly remember my son’s asking me about 20 years ago whether I’d noticed that black people were so much more beautiful than whites. I saw immediately wht he was getting at and I was so ashamed that I hadn’t seen it. I’ve worked on this for 20 years. It’s been a matter of monitoring my reactions and trying to replace them; I’ve also tried to see the different circumstances in which people are placed, and how that can make a huge different to their ability to present themselves fairly. I’ve learned a huge amount.

    And I rated as neutral on the european-african implicit bias test. Not so with women and science, but I’m trying the same approach now. Sadly I can feel the bias when I approach job candidates and I find the methods help – I can almost hear the background voice launching into a narrative about his superiority, and I work to replace it. It pretty quickly gets fairly easy and, honestly, it is such a pleasure to see people more clearly and fairly.

  2. Here is a link to a short pamphlet from the Cornell ADVANCE Center on dealing with Implicit Bias

    Here is a link to a great pamphlet prepared by the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute at Wisconsin-Madison:

    Here is a long document that is pretty specific to the University of Wisconsin that has a thorough section on the impact of implicit bias and how to manage tendencies toward bias in searches. This one has all kinds of cool resources for chairs of search committees :

    I think the two big factors that reduce the impact of implicit bias are (1) know that it exists and (2) give yourself sufficient time to look at an applicant’s entire application package. Course releases for faculty who are active in a search committee is a pipe dream of mine.

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