Uncovering unconscious bias in business

January 12, 2021

By Cassandra Morrison, for The Accountant

Evolution has left the human body with parts that no longer serve it — like the appendix, embryonic tails, and tonsils. Some of these features evolve out of existence over time; others are removed with a minor surgery. Similarly, evolution has also left the human brain with instincts that were necessary for survival for centuries but are no longer useful and can often be harmful — like bias.

Quickly categorizing things, people, and situations was vital to early humans. They relied on their ability to make near-instant decisions about what was safe and unsafe — to distinguish the footstep of a friend from a foe in the blink of an eye, faster than they could logically respond. And today, we still have that instinct for knee-jerk judgment. Our brains can only consciously process around 40 items per second, but as many as 11 million unconsciously. To cope with this overload of information, we sort through these millions of factors using shortcuts our brains have developed over time. Additionally, research has found that we’re more likely to make biased decisions when we make those decisions quickly — findings that have serious implications for today’s rapidly evolving business world.

By unknowingly allowing our unconscious biases to influence our fast-paced decision-making, we end up excluding certain groups, perpetuating certain stereotypes, and relying on faulty reasoning to make important choices. It’s only by committing to uncovering and combating our unconscious biases, personally and in the workplace, that we can interrupt these mental shortcuts and make better, more equitable decisions. 

‘If you have a brain, you have a bias’

Implicit biases are different from explicit biases in that we know our explicit biases exist, but our subconscious holds many biases that we may not be aware of, spanning race, gender, appearance, age, wealth, and much more. Implicit biases can be more damaging than explicit biases because they often influence our decisions without our knowledge. These insidious attitudes impact the workplace in many ways: From job listings to performance reviews to promotions, implicit bias pervades the decision-making process.

“If you have a brain, you have a bias. It’s human. Our brains are hardwired to take shortcuts and bias is a form of helping us make those shortcuts. Bias is a threat protector,” explains Michele Meyer-Shipp, Esq., principal and chief diversity and inclusion officer at KPMG.¹ “It’s real and we have to take steps to interrupt it.”

To interrupt and unlearn these biases, first we must acknowledge they exist and can impact anyone. Defensiveness often creeps into conversations about ageism, sexism, or racism, but many who don’t consciously hold those views can still be influenced by them. When it comes to unconscious bias, it’s important to lead the conversation to a place that acknowledges that everyone has biases — implicit and explicit — and it’s what we do about this fact that matters.

Diversity and inclusion expert Gregory Tall, MBA, leads workshops and conferences to encourage this openness and communication. “The hard part is no one ever wants to be called out — no organization wants to be accused of being biased against anyone,” he explains. “So, it starts with asking how we get everyone feeling comfortable enough to engage in an uncomfortable conversation, how we get them to the table, and how we get to the real action.” 

Biases that block the door

Most experts agree that recruitment offers the most transparent accounts of bias in the workplace, from the wording in job descriptions to the filtering of resumes based on names. Tall saw this a lot during his time in human resources. “A job posting encouraging 'recent grads' to apply might be coded language suggesting younger candidates are preferred. Bias tends to operate covertly. One study showed that job applicants with traditionally white-sounding names were 50% more likely to be contacted for an interview than applicants with traditionally African-American-sounding names,” Tall adds.

Learning more about the types of biases helps identify and interrupt them. A 2019 study by Korn Ferry found the financial market has the highest percentage of women in C-suite positions with 31%. When almost 70% of leadership in the financial sector is made up of men, the affinity bias can explain why it’s difficult for women to reach the C-suite in this sector and others: Those who are in charge of these decisions are drawn to those most similar to them.

Meyer-Shipp says that affinity bias is one of the most pervasive forms of bias that she sees show up on a day-to-day basis. “It shows up all of the time and it's not just the type of bias that happens around race or gender,” she says. “For example, in a job interview, you form these points of affinity, points that you find you have in common with an interviewee, so that before you know it you’re halfway through the interview and you’re like, wait a minute, we haven’t even talked about the job.”

Besides affinity bias, research has uncovered many biases women face in the workplace, making it more difficult for them to enter organizations and ascend at the same rates as their male peers. Joan Williams, JD, a 40-year veteran researcher and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, has spent her career exploring the interplay between work, class, and gender.

“Many claim that the wage gap between men and women stems not from discrimination, but from the fact that men negotiate their salaries whereas women don’t,” Williams writes in “Double Jeopardy? An Empirical Study with Implications for the Debates Over Implicit Bias and Intersectionality,” published in 2014 in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. “But a deeper look at the ‘women don’t ask’ literature reveals a study that finds that when women do negotiate their starting salaries, they are seen as less likable and they are less likely to be hired. I suggest that the reason women do not ask is that they correctly sense that they will be penalized if they do.”

Williams calls this bias, where women are punished for behavior that men are rewarded for, “the Tightrope.” She also notes that women face a bias she calls “Prove-It-Again!” where women must show more evidence of competence than men to be seen as equally competent. Black women face the Prove-It-Again! bias to an even greater degree.

With such barriers to entry for women and other minorities, unconscious biases can effectively block the door at any organization. For a workplace hoping to overcome unconscious bias, identifying types of bias and being able to recognize their impact is a good way to start correcting course. 

Uncovering unconscious bias

Addressing the systemic issues behind biases is not easy. Historical examples and research have shown that systems that hold minorities down do not disappear without deep, complex work, and long-term commitment.

“A one-shot bias training is a good start, but it is not a solution. Systemic biases are built on unfair systems and cultures. You can’t change culture by doing something once, right? That’s not how cultural change works,” Williams says.

This is why Williams has developed the open source website biasinterrupters.org, which offers free toolkits to help organizations evaluate their systems and implement small changes. “Bias interrupters” are tweaks to basic business practices, like hiring, performance evaluations, assignments, promotions, and compensation, that combat implicit bias in the workplace.

“If a business had a problem with sales, leaders would not just have these deep conversations about how much they care about sales, they would look at the evidence,” Williams says. “They would see where things are going wrong and why sales are falling off and try everything until they met their goals. Why don’t we do the same with our bias problems?”

There are a multitude of evidence-based actions organizations that are serious about overcoming implicit bias can take. In addition to using the bias interrupter tools that Williams has built, or hosting the kinds of workshops that Tall leads, many organizations are hiring diversity and inclusion officers, like Meyer-Shipp. In 2019 alone, diversity and inclusion roles posted on Glassdoor rose 30% over the previous year.

Having a diversity and inclusion officer is a great idea, but again, it can’t end there. “If an organization is going to hire a diversity and inclusion leader, they should ensure they’re giving that person both a seat at the table where decisions are being made and power to make real change, including the budget and the staff they need,” Meyer- Shipp says. “Without those things the diversity and inclusion leader is just sharing ideas that leadership may or may not put into place.”

Williams has seen this issue time and again in large organizations: “If you hire a chief diversity officer and give that person no ownership over the systems that create systemic bias, you should not be surprised that that person does not achieve your goals. You have structured that position to be unable to achieve the systemic change that’s needed.” 

Hope for a bias-free world

Biases in the workplace can have far-reaching effects. If employees don’t feel accepted, valued, and understood, then productivity, retention, and organizational culture suffer. This is supported by data: A 2018 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above the industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean.

Organizations that have successfully interrupted their biases also enjoy other benefits that their competitors may not. Meyer-Shipp shares that at a recent global Pride conference KPMG hosted, LGBTQIA+ employees noted how far the business had come, with some finding it hard to imagine even coming out in their workplace not that long ago.

Besides the benefit of a happy team, Meyer-Shipp notes that a diverse workforce can open doors to a diverse client base and exciting new ideas, but after 40 years of studying these issues, Williams is not convinced that making the business case makes an impact: “People always find a reason why they’re different, why it wouldn’t apply to their business. It comes down to fixing a systemic issue.” 

An unbiased view

Williams writes in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, “Disrupting these automatic associations — this implicit bias — may well be very difficult. But the issue on the ground is not whether automatic associations occur but whether, once made, the stereotyping that results can be overridden. Stereotypes are reversed all the time.”

Throughout history, different biases protected our ancestors from a variety of predators and dangerous situations. As society has matured, these biases no longer serve humanity. But because of how deeply and precisely they’re rooted, they’re incredibly difficult to dismantle. It is not hopeless, though. With many conscious steps and conversations, organizations — and the CPA profession — can continue the long climb to becoming truly diverse and inclusive.


Cassandra Morrison received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois. Interested in the intersection of business and culture, her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Entropy, Longform, and others. 

Reprinted courtesy of Insight, the magazine of the Illinois CPA Society.

Footnotes

¹ Michelle Meyer-Shipp was employed at KPMG when this article was originally published in Fall 2020.

 

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