Our brains are hard-wired to favor certain categories of people while doubting others. It’s called unconscious bias. How does that play out at meetings — and what can you do to minimize it?
Late one Thursday night last March, attendees at Microsoft’s 2016 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco looked forward to unwinding after a full program. But when they arrived at the official after-party, they realized that a group of unexpected guests had joined the festivities: a collection of scantily clad dancers in schoolgirl costumes. This wasn’t a joke. It was the officially hired entertainment. The ensuing dynamic recalled the atmosphere at more than a few fraternity parties: Some men laughed; some women felt uncomfortable; some people dismissed it as no big deal.
But it was a very big deal, and attendees called Microsoft out on social media. “Making a formal complaint tomorrow,” Kamina Vincent, a gaming producer from Australia, wrote on Twitter. “I will not stand for this. I’m trying to encourage women into the industry, then this happens.” The company’s leadership immediately recognized that the party was inappropriate. Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft’s Xbox division, issued a public apology along with an internal memo to employees that called the move “unequivocally wrong.” “It’s unfortunate,” he continued, “that such events could take place in a week where we worked so hard to engage the many different gaming communities in the exact opposite way.”
If it was unequivocally wrong, how could organizers ever have thought it was the right decision to create an environment that oozed with sexism? While Microsoft has made strong steps to encourage openness and inclusivity, the company is struggling to address a problem that plagues all work environments: unconscious bias.
‘PEOPLE WANT TO FIT IN’
The conversation surrounding the concept of being biased tends to focus on blatant discriminatory behaviors — segregating schools, using ethnic slurs, refusing to serve certain customers based on how they look, and other examples of intentional and obvious intolerance. But biases aren’t conﬁned to the headline-making prejudices we can see or hear. There are many pre-conceived notions that lurk outside our conscious awareness. They’re commonly known as unconscious or implicit biases, and they most likely play a role in your brain’s daily decisions — including the decision to hire “schoolgirl” dancers to perform at a professional conference.
“In general, people want to be egalitarian, but the evidence shows that the vast majority of people have biases based on race, gender, and sexual orientation,” said Kate Ratliff, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida, and executive director of Project Implicit, a nonproﬁt collection of researchers founded by scientists from the University of Washington, Harvard University, and the University of Virginia that studies what it calls “implicit social cognition — thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control.” Ratliff said: “I like to reassure people that it doesn’t make you a racist or a bad person. Evidence shows that these biases can begin at a very young age. Some infants have even shown a preference for same-race faces, and what you learn from family, friends, and society continues to shape your thinking.”
As people grow older and enter the workplace, these biases can create big problems. For example, a recent BBC test revealed that a job seeker with an English-sounding name was offered three times the number of interviews for advertising-sales positions in London as a similar applicant with a Muslim name. Or consider a 2016 study of more than 21,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries conducted by the Peterson Institute for International Economics that showed 60 percent of companies had no female members on their boards of executives, while fewer than 5 percent had a female CEO.
Statistics like these raise a question that the meetings industry must answer: If unconscious biases are hurting employees in offices, what are they doing to attendees at conferences and events?
It’s true that many organizers work to create collaborative and interactive on-site environments, with programs that aim to encourage candid discussions about pressing trends and sensitive issues. From discussing health-care reform at medical meetings, to talking about privacy concerns at IT conferences, a business event can be the friendly playground where attendees discuss particularly controversial topics. But still, Allyson Dylan Robinson, a senior consultant at Cook Ross, which specializes in organizational culture, thinks that unconscious biases can get in the way of productive conversations. “At a root level, our brains are wired to trust the familiar and doubt the unfamiliar, unexpected, or unusual,” Dylan Robinson said. “Because sameness and the status quo feel safer to us, we’re more likely to hear and trust our ideas that affirm our pre-conceptions, and that’s not why most of us choose to attend conferences.”
And after one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in U.S. history, the inability to stay open-minded presents a signiﬁcant challenge. “If my brain interprets that someone has a different political identity, I may lose the ability to see that person as a complex, multifaceted person,” Dylan Robinson said. “That makes it much harder to have the rich and catalytic conversations that we want to have in the conference environment.”
Biases aren’t just conﬁned to attendees’ inner thoughts, though. They’re often reﬂected onstage and in the hallways of convention venues. Think about being a woman sitting in the audience during one of the many all-male panels on leadership, which reinforce the belief that being an expert leader is reserved for the old boys’ club. (Indeed, all-male panels are so widespread across industries they now have their own portmanteau: “manels.”) Imagine being a 28-year-old in a session that works to address collaboration with Millenni-als in the workforce, but it’s ﬁlled with mentions of entitlement and selﬁshness. Think of being a non-white attendee and following signage throughout a convention center or hotel that features a dis-proportionate number of Caucasians. No matter where you turn, unconscious bias is alive and well.
As these biases insert themselves into conference environments, they can keep attendees from feeling comfortable enough to participate fully and authentically. “People want to ﬁt in,” Ratliff said. “They want to be like other people in the group, and they often adjust their beliefs in subtle ways both consciously and unconsciously.”
Consider any time a presenter asks an audience to raise their hands if they agree with a statement, or invites attendees to step up to a microphone to share their questions and comments. Many people may worry what their peers will think of their opinions and adjust their feelings accordingly. It’s called conformity bias, and according to Dylan Robinson, technology can help solve the problem.
“It’s important to create other ways for voices to enrich the conversation,” Dylan Robinson said. “From texting a question to a moderator, to projecting the Twitter chatter on a big screen, there are other opportunities to elevate the discussion.”
Ken Holsinger, vice president of digital solutions at Freeman, has seen the company’s FXP Touch second-screen technology create a higher level of comfort for users who can submit questions, comments, and cast votes from their devices. At a medical conference Holsinger attended in September, for example, attendees were more than willing to weigh in on a question that would have made many people squirm: Who do you want to see win the White House?
FXP Touch has two modes — one where attendees must attach their names and email addresses to their activities, and another that keeps their identities a secret. Surprisingly, there is little difference in response rates between the two. “I think there is an assumed layer of anonymity behind your thumbs,” Holsinger said. “By staying in your seat and casting votes from a screen, attendees seem to enjoy the same freedom to express their honest opinions as they do on social media.”
NETWORKING LESSONS FROM THE PRIMORDIAL PAST
While anonymity may help when it comes to educational programming, it won’t do much for attendees as they search for new business contacts. Dylan Robinson thinks that traditional meet-and-greet experiences fail to motivate most people to step out of their comfort zone. “We’ve often referred to networking receptions as ‘mixers,’ which is humorous to me,” Dylan Robinson said. “When I think back to the last few conferences I’ve attended, it’s funny how few people actually mix.”
That’s not just because some attendees are introverted. “When we walk into spaces that are unusual or unfamiliar, we naturally seek out our own tribe,” Dylan Robinson said. “So it’s no surprise that at the end of the event, we walk out with people we already knew. The opportunity to experience something new is lost — not because of some conscious choice, but because of some unconscious security that we’re barely aware of, if we’re aware of it at all.”
Attendees might arrive at those receptions with 21st-century tools like smartphones and smart-watches, but their approaches to making new contacts are rooted in a time well before convention centers and hotels existed. “In the primordial past, it was often safer to be around other creatures that looked like you than to be around those that didn’t,” Dylan Robinson said. “Creatures that could spot differences quickly and respond in ways that helped them survive were more likely to survive. We’re still carrying that difference detector around in the center of our evolved brains. It’s active every time we walk into that ﬁrst networking reception and your eyes settle upon that person who, for whatever reason, seems safe.”
Rather than relying on the usual combination of an open bar, loud music, and name badges, Dylan Robinson recommends ﬁnding “fun and meaningful ways to coax us out of our natural groupings.” The most successful strategies she has seen involve some level of gamiﬁcation. She referenced one conference where attendees each received a passport. As they met one another, they traded passports, and rather than introducing themselves, they shared information about the other passport holders they had met. Many mobile apps have also incorporated competitive network-ing components that reward attendees based on the number of new contacts they make. For networking to truly work, Dylan Robinson said, “organizers need to come up with ways to get us to interact with people our unconscious biases would normally blind us to.”
CREATING THE RIGHT CULTURE
Of course, that’s easier said than done. “We’ve learned that these implicit biases are very resistant to change,” Ratliff said. “Solutions like mandatory diversity training have been shown to somewhat backﬁre.”
How can you try to solve the problem with your attendees? Dylan Robinson thinks that some of the lessons she uses to help Cook Ross clients address their internal organizational diversity and inclusion issues can also apply to meetings and conferences. “Events have cultures, just like organizations do,” Dylan Robinson said. “A lot of the same thinking that we apply to building the right kind of culture in the workplace can be applied to conventions and conferences.”
The ﬁrst step toward promoting that culture is simple: Add clear language to your event website and other promotional materials. Sure, some conferences have mission statements, but they’re often buried deep in a website, with language that reﬂects an internal objective to be the “premier professional-development event for the indus-try.” Instead, the language should make sure that prospective attendees know they will be part of an environment where everyone is welcome.
Consider taking a cue from the industry’s room-block disrupter, Airbnb. Before using the platform, new hosts and renters must “agree to treat everyone in the Airbnb community — regardless of their race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age — with respect, and without judgment or bias.” Dylan Robinson recommends using a similar approach to “establish that a conference values diversity, inclusion, and the free exchange of ideas.”
Your event’s culture also can extend beyond messages to be respectful. “Why not add a list of encouraged behaviors to help attendees get the most out of their experience?” Dylan Robinson asked. “A conference I attended recently reminded participants every day, ‘Don’t just collect business cards. Collect new ideas. The person who collects the most new ideas this week wins.’ It was a great way to help shape that event’s culture.”
Meetings and conferences can provide education credits, showcase new products, uncover job opportunities, and deliver a wide range of beneﬁts for attendees. But all the common selling points for registration pale in comparison to the core promise of bringing people together face-to-face: to help individuals from different backgrounds ﬁnd common ground. “It’s important to remind attendees why they’re getting together in the ﬁrst place,” Dylan Robinson said. “Because they want exposure to new people and new ideas.”