So you think you’re unbiased

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(Pan JJ/Shutterstock)

A supportive, strong relationship with a mentor can have a huge impact on one’s professional development and success in a workplace. But subtle barriers to open communication and mutual engagement can halt that relationship from becoming truly productive. Such barriers can often be traced to mentors’ unconscious biases against those different from themselves.

In a recent professional development course run by the Consortium of Harvard Affiliated Offices for Faculty Development and Diversity (CHADD), keynote Robbin Champman, PhD, associate provost at Wellesley College, spoke to an audience of senior clinicians and clinical researchers about recognizing and correcting for unconscious biases that threaten what could otherwise be a fruitful mentoring experience.

“People are meaning-making machines,” Chapman said, explaining that in any one moment, our brains are absorbing and interpreting a million bits of information about our surroundings. We create meaning from these data points without consciously realizing what we’re doing, and this often means making assumptions about people.

“A lot of our filtering maps to our social conditioning/ social experiences,” said Chapman. “We need to notice our filtering and interrupt it.”

Sometimes, we may not realize that we’re overcorrecting for bias, or “killing with kindness.” Chapman says that sometimes, mentors fear criticizing minority mentees for fear of appearing prejudiced. Ultimately, without critical feedback, the mentee may miss the mark on important career development milestones and be held back from advancement opportunities.

Language speaks volumes

A panel following Chapman’s talk included Emelia Benjamin, MD, ScM, professor of medicine at Boston University (BU) School of Medicine and of epidemiology at BU School of Public Health. Benjamin challenged the audience to carefully examine the language they use with and about their mentees. She cited a Forbes study that analyzed performance reviews of men and women from 28 different companies. The study found that not only did the women receive more negative feedback than men, but also the nature of their feedback was strikingly different.
Unconsciously, even the most well-intentioned person will make implicit associations based on mental “shortcuts” or evolutionary tendencies to favor the similar over the dissimilar.
Of the 94 female reviews containing critical feedback, 71 contained negative criticism about their personalities (examples include advice such as, “watch your tone,” “stop being so judgmental,” and “take a step back”). Only two of the 83 critical reviews of men contained such language. More common in male reviews were clear directives to acquire new skills.

Importantly, the gender of the reviewer had no discernable effect on the content of the review. This suggests that women, too, are guilty of employing different language and using different contexts to evaluate male and female employees.

Benjamin stressed the difference between reaction and right action, reiterating Chapman’s point about filtering and recognizing one’s patterns. Helpful feedback, she said, is “specific, timely, and behavior-based.”

Seek out discomfort

Employers say it all the time: “I hire people that I like and want to see every day.”

At first glance, this statement seems positive and even, perhaps, a bit bland. Of course we hire people who seem like they would be a pleasure to work with. The implied alternative is hiring someone rude!

It’s not actually that simple, though, and upon close examination, this seemingly innocuous hiring dogma has many layers.

Yes, it’s good to hire nice people. Claiming workplace fit and congeniality are top priorities may even make it seem like you’re completely unbiased, because these are qualities anyone could have, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, cultural background, etc.

In practice, however, employers do not hold everyone to the same standards. Unconsciously, even the most well-intentioned person will make implicit associations based on mental “shortcuts” or evolutionary tendencies to favor the similar over the dissimilar.

“You should aim for discomfort at least once in a while,” Robbin advised. She suggests bringing in people to interview who might make you uncomfortable, to exercise your ability to filter biases in real time.

Calling ourselves in

“There’s been a trend towards calling people out” for their biases and indiscretions, says Chapman. “That creates a culture of shame.” Instead, she said, “We need to call ourselves in.”

By acknowledging that we all have some inherent biases, and consciously working to prevent them from influencing our actions, we can all promote a more equitable and supportive work environment.

To test yourself for unconscious bias on a wide variety of areas — including race, age, and religion — take the Implicit Association Tests designed by researchers from Harvard University, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington.