Unconscious Bias – A Killer for Upward Mobility

My work on upward mobility has led me to unexpected places.  One of the unexpected places has been an exploration of unconscious bias.  I am a research consumer on related topics and I’ve learned that we humans have lots of unconscious biases.  I also learned what is meant by systems thinking and institutionalized biases such as institutionalized racism.  This blog deals more at the individual level.

Many of us consider ourselves supportive of equality, diversity, and inclusion.  Yet, my conclusion (and that of a recent book on the topic The Person You Mean To Be: How Good People Fight Bias by Dolly Chugh) is that we have hidden biases that prevent us from growing into more inclusive, aware, and accepting versions of ourselves. Maybe we need to see ourselves as “good-ish,” a term that Chugh says leaves room for personal growth rather than condemnation.

Chugh’s approach to thinking about diversity and inclusion begins with oneself and the ways in which we may inadvertently hold unconscious biases or benefit from systemic bias. Unconscious bias, which is sometimes referred to as implicit bias, has been in our national discussion a lot in the last year or two even in the recent Supreme Court hearings.    

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, is the originator of the term growth mindset. It refers to our beliefs about our abilities and whether those abilities can grow and change, or whether they’re fixed, which would be a fixed mindset.   I could have a growth mindset about my ability to learn a new mathematical technique, but might have a fixed mindset about my ability to learn how to play music.

Dweck and many collaborators show that the vast majority of our mental processing is happening outside of our conscious awareness, which means we are slipping up and not usually seeing it.  We will all have blind spots – that is inevitable.  The issue is what happens when the slip-up is made visible to us? Do we shut down or do we learn and grow? That’s where Carol Dweck’s work becomes useful. If we could have a mindset of ourselves as a work in progress, then when we make a mistake we may not feel great about it, but we’ll look at it, learn from it, improve from it.

In a fixed mindset, if we view ourselves as either good or not, either sexist or not, either racist or not — which is very often the way we corner ourselves in the conversations around these issues — there’s nowhere to go when you make a mistake. Very few of us are willing to take on the label of not being a good person or being a racist or a sexist. And if that’s the only alternative, we have a fixed mindset and don’t learn. We double down on defending ourselves. We go into the red zone of protecting our identity.

 Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is another take at this viewpoint.   He talks about our conscious and unconscious responses to events – what he refers to as Systems 1 and Systems 2 thinking. 

The vast majority of our mental processing is happening outside of our conscious awareness, which means we are tripping up and not seeing it sometimes.   It’s small things like not interrupting people, being aware of people’s different holidays and religious commitments, the words we use, and not dismissing what’s serious in someone else’s mind.  In this era of #MeToo, it’s important to highlight that there are men who understand boundaries and are following them in a very appropriate way. These are not earth-shattering things. But when someone does them daily in such a constant way, they add up to inclusion.

Chugh cites some research that is relevant to work on upward mobility. She looked at how informal pathways affect important diversity outcomes. In our world of academia, people often hear informally that you can email professors before you apply to a Ph.D. program, indicate your interest in their research and ask if they’d be willing to talk to you about it. There’s no formal process around this — it just sort of happens sometimes. When it does, it can lead to important recognition on the faculty member’s part that this person could be a good Ph.D. student, so it can affect admissions outcomes down the road.  She and a colleague did a study where they created fictional identities for students of different genders and races and had each of those fictional students send an identical email to professors, one randomly selected professor from every Ph.D.-granting department in the United States, based on the U.S. News and World Report college listing. We were interested in which students would get a response. The findings showed that the white males were more likely to get a response from a professor from this cold-call email than the nonwhite males. 

It illustrates how these informal pathways are not captured in the big hiring numbers and the diversity numbers and the things that are legally important to follow in compliance. But they have real influence on the numbers that are eventually captured. So, it’s a pathway to an important gateway, in this case admission to a Ph.D. program. And it’s in a context that a lot of people assume that we’ve kind of figured it out in academia, that if anything we’re stereotyped to being overly attuned to these issues. Our data suggested otherwise.

I don’t think we’re programmed to be receptive to learning about our biases.  We’re programmed to be in that fixed mindset of either I’m a good person or I’m not, either I’m a sexist or I’m not. Our national conversation often has that vibe to it as well, that either/or mindset. Can we develop a growth mindset as a result of thinking of ourselves as good-ish people — good-ish implies work in progress. I’m not a good person who has nowhere to go when I make a mistake; I’m a good-ish person who has somewhere to go.

Any time you learn something new and get better at it, it’s a great feeling. It’s interesting that in this area of diversity, inclusion, bias, equity, equality, we deny ourselves the opportunity to grow. We don’t give ourselves the satisfaction of getting better, particularly in a domain we care deeply about and that impacts others in really significant ways. I feel like there’s an opportunity not just to do the things we want to do for the world around us, but also to help see ourselves as the people we mean to be.

Chugh comments that there’s a multiplier effect of getting people to be at the level of good-ish?: The more we see people owning their mistakes, taking accountability and then getting better, the more it liberates us to do it. I see it all the time when I give talks on this topic. People are stunned that I’ll admit some of the things that are fairly humiliating that I’ve done, my missteps. But then they start telling me their missteps. And it’s like, OK, now how do we move beyond confessional? That’s not what this is about. This is about growing from it. And then we do.

Chugh hopes we’re able to have more constructive Thanksgiving conversations. I’m hoping we are able to learn how to say our colleagues’ names properly rather than avoiding names we don’t know how to pronounce or shortening them or nicknaming them. I’m hoping that we learn how to apologize when we make a mistake. These are some of the behavioral things. “The more we see people owning their mistakes, taking accountability and then getting better, the more it liberates us to do it.”  But on a higher level, I hope we take on a different way of thinking about our role. This isn’t about solving the problems around us, it’s about starting with what we can do and giving ourselves the gift of the opportunity to grow. It’s setting a higher standard for ourselves, but also moving towards it.

Chugh stays at the individual’s mind and maybe how a couple of individuals would interact with each other.  She does not point much to systems and processes and institutions. Sociologists and economists and political scientists and historians can tell us. Some of the things I share in the book on that topic were the ones that I learned the most in doing the work.

As a side note, consider reading the recently published Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist by Eli Saslow.  It is a fantastic illustration of how mindsets work and can be altered given patience, willingness, and reasoning.


Parts of this blog were from a Knowledge@Wharton interview with Dolly Chugh


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