Is Unconscious Bias More or Less Pronounced During the Pandemic?

Diversity expert Howard J. Ross spoke to Convene about the effect the COVID crisis has had on bias in the workplace and at virtual events.

Author: Pat Olsen       

Unconscious Bias

When people are interested in inclusion, they’ll find a way to make it happen, says Howard J. Ross, a diversity expert and author of Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives.

Think you’re not biased? Everyone is, according to Howard J. Ross, a diversity expert and author of Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives. But don’t be offended — bias isn’t necessarily bad, he said. “Generally, our preferences — for television shows, foods, or the like,” Ross said, “have some bias associated with them, and it’s unconscious.”

That doesn’t mean we can’t make errors in reasoning, however, such as when we’re exposed to assumed “truths” or to social conditioning. And therein lies a problem: that such exposure or conditioning can lead to stereotypes, which in turn can lead to destructive judgments, such as gender or racial bias.

Recently Convene spoke with Ross about his book and unconscious bias in our everyday and work lives — and what has changed over this past year.

Can you talk more about our biases being unconscious?

If you consider the human mind and the way we make decisions, when we look at something, we use past experience to determine whether it’s “safe” or not. We make instant observations, such as friend or foe, almost like the tastebuds on our tongue make a judgement. It’s our brain sending us signals we’re not even aware of.

Say I meet a woman who reminds me of a girl I had a crush on in high school, perhaps because of her hair style. If I remember my high-school crush with fondness, I may immediately think well of this stranger. My brain sends positive signals that I’m not conscious of. On the other hand, if my high-school crush dumped me or humiliated me, I may have a different reaction to this new woman. Once you challenge the premise that bias is bad and see it for what it is, you are more likely to be receptive to thinking about your perceptions in other situations.

Let’s say we recognize that bias is a normal part of the human experience. Where do we go from there?

[We need to] develop the capacity for self-observation. If we can stop and be introspective about our reactions, to use car terminology, that gives us the opportunity to step on the clutch, shift into neutral, and “dis-identify” from the automatic responses that usually dominate our thinking.

[Another] point [I make in the book] — practice constructive uncertainty — is critical. I sometimes say this in shorthand as, “Turn your explanation points into question marks.” We have this tendency to assume that something is true because we think it is, and when you study the research, more often than not, you find this isn’t the case. We’re just interpreting it that way.

We can see this currently in the political system, when people on both sides can look at the same data and use it to justify their point of view. It’s quite amazing. When you look at this from the outside, you can see the irrationality of it, but when you’re in the middle of it, you can’t. The notion is that if we slow down and bring a little curiosity to our decision making, rather than assume that every thought which pops into our head is true, we can begin to realize that some are simply a reaction based on previous assumptions we’ve had.

We are living in “bubbles” at the moment due to the pandemic. Does that make unconscious bias more or less pronounced?

Some of both. In some ways the pandemic makes unconscious bias more pronounced because we have less time for each other. Many of us are suffering from Zoom fatigue. We want to get on Zoom, have our meeting, and get off, as opposed to meeting around the water cooler or coffee pot at work and asking, “How was your day? Did you watch that movie last night? How are things?” We don’t take the time to really connect, so in that sense we allow ourselves to be more susceptible to bias.

On the other hand, a lot of remote work blinds us to people’s identity, especially if we’re not using Zoom cameras. In some cases, you don’t know much physically about the person you’re talking to. There’s less bias, for example, towards people who are shopping online as opposed to someone walking into a store to shop. So it can go either way.

How have virtual events opened up opportunities for diversity and inclusion? Or have they?

When we first started working remotely, a lot of people, me included, wondered how we were going to have intimate conversations in this environment, the kind where we’re sitting in a circle in a room, for example. But I’ve found that a lot of aspects are not only replicable, they are advantageous. For example, I’ve attended a conference in India where people fly in for a one-and-a-half-hour presentation. This year they held it virtually. We were able to have more speakers because more people were willing to speak online for that amount of time rather than if they’d had to fly. We’re finding ways to use technology, like chat rooms, to have intimate conversations. I could see everyone’s face when I did that, rather than in a physical room with 50 people, where I might not be able to.

Again, it can go either way. I compare it to teacher quality. Teachers who are good can teach in any environment. Bad teachers can’t. You have to be able to play around with different ways of presenting.

How can event organizers avoid or limit bias in their choice of speakers?

The same rules apply as for any decision. Be thoughtful. Take that constructive uncertainty and slow down. Say, “Okay, we automatically like these people. Is there anyone we’re missing? Are voices or perspectives missing?” This virtual format allows for a much wider range of people who can participate. Look at demographics and say, “Wait a minute, we have to get someone of color to participate,” for example. Is that bias? Of course not. We’d like to have a body of speakers that represents those attending. We want to make sure we have people of different genders and racial and cultural groups. We want older and younger people. Then we have a broader representation of the population and can get different viewpoints. We know from research that when we do that, we get more innovative ideas and the like simply by having people looking at things from all perspectives.

What is the effect of not seeing people of different race and ethnicity in person at gatherings like conferences? 

There’s a certain fellowship that develops when we’re live with each other. When we sit next to each other, or dine with each other, the more we get to know about each other, the less we treat each other like what we are. When we have an opportunity to really get to know each other personally, our identity plays less of a role in our interactions with each other. I participated in a virtual conference recently (I was on the board of the organization) that was totally different from past years. Before, I’d give a presentation, hang out with people, have a glass of wine over dinner with them, and stay up late talking. This time I was glued to my email all night, and I’m not alone in this. Fewer people who attended the conference were immersed in it. That’s the tradeoff. We need to find ways to have people more engaged rather than having passive experiences.

For anyone interested in how to be aware of and address unconscious bias in the hiring process, your 15-page appendix offers an excellent, detailed explanation: “A Top Ten List of Ways to Identify and Navigate Bias in Talent Management.” Could you talk about interviewing, one of the topics?

There are a number of things we know. One, when we’re interviewing people, having an interview panel talk to the candidate rather than one individual, is much more likely to allow for a balanced decision-making process, particularly if people come from different perspectives. If you’re the COO of a company and I’m interviewing you with a colleague, a woman of color, it would not be unusual for her to ask the questions. If you respond only to me, that says something. It’s why having a panel is more effective.

Second, giving interviewees the key questions beforehand takes care of language bias, introversion and extroversion bias, and cultural differences, for example.

Thirdly, a lot of law firms use the speed-dating form of interviewing where a student interviews for 15 minutes with each of six partners. The problem is, if you’re a male (of the same background as a male interviewer) who is white, you’re going to slip into a rhythm with him more easily than if the interviewer is a woman or a person of color. I don’t mean to universalize that; it’s an archetype, not a stereotype. It’s a huge advantage to be able to get into a rhythm with someone quickly, so giving people more time is important.

And blind resumes, where the names are removed, can also be helpful.

Do you think that the current environment, in which the hiring process is virtual, might exacerbate unconscious bias, or do the opposite?

It depends. For people who use it well and are thoughtful, it can be helpful, because it creates a uniformity of conditions. Under normal circumstances, if I’m an interviewer, I’ll interview one person at 9:00 in the morning when I’m fresh, somebody else at lunch in the cafeteria, and a third person on Skype. The different environments could have a huge impact on the interview. On the other side, people’s backgrounds, and what you see in their homes on Zoom, can have an effect. For example, I choose to have the photos on the wall behind me be visible because they show my values. However, someone could be triggered by the photo of James Baldwin or Martin Luther King. Sometimes your home and family life give more material for people to be positive or negative.

With workplace experts thinking that the move to remote work will become the norm for many organizations after COVID, do you think that change in the workplace environment will open up opportunities to have a more diverse workforce since geographic location is no longer a consideration or barrier?

It has the opportunity to do that, yes. I hate to give both sides again, but it’s always both sides. Working remotely has a huge impact for people with disabilities, for example, because people won’t have to travel, or commute. That can also mean cost savings for anyone who benefits by not having to commute. Also, you don’t necessarily have to dress for work like before. On the other side, people in lower-paying jobs may be impacted by not having access to quality Wi-Fi, and not being able pay for it will be an issue. So there’s a potential for a more diverse workforce. It comes down to the fact that when people are interested in inclusion, they’ll find a way to make it happen. When people are not interested, they won’t include others.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Pat Olsen is a freelance writer based in Tinton Falls, New Jersey.

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