Our Hidden Biases: Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

Updated: Aug 30

Blindfold Man“Everyone's a little bit Racist, sometimes. Doesn't mean we go around committing Hate crimes. Look around and You will find, No one's really Color-blind. Maybe it's a fact We all should face. Everyone makes Judgments... Based on race.”

..."Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist" Avenue Q

Consider the impact a person of authority – a manager hiring a potential employee or evaluating an existing employee - has on advancing or impeding that individual’s career. The implications of hidden biases of racism, sexism, ageism, and other discriminatory behavior can be profound. In fact, one could argue that the potential impact on someone’s life – their economic standing in the world – make this one of the most important places to combat discrimination.

So, how do we take this hidden monster on? How do we combat the tentacles that potentially choke the careers of deserving people – the people that don’t look like traditional holders of power?

More than two decades ago, three scientists from the University of Virginia, the University of Washington and Harvard embarked on Project Implicit, an endeavor to better understand the implicit biases we all have. It has since grown into a large movement that seeks to educate the public about these hidden biases. The initiative also operates a virtual laboratory, where online tests, self-administered, reveal bias across gender, race, sexuality, body image, religion, political leaning, etc.

This virtual laboratory uses responses to determine the degree to which our unconscious prejudices impact our thinking and decision-making about people. Results can be surprising. After all, these are hidden biases.

To better understand my own biases, I’ve eagerly taken these tests myself. My assumption going into testing was that I had certain biases and I was safeguarding against them. Post taking (and retaking) the bias tests, the evidence was clear. It is inherently more difficult to force myself to think positively about women and careers than it is for me to think positively about women and families.

Being a 61-year-old white, Jewish male who grew up in a household where my father was the breadwinner, coupled with living in a culture for the first 20 plus years of my life which displayed, referenced and spoke about women more positively with respect to families and less positively with respect to careers, has given me this bias. It doesn’t matter that I have consciously sought to work with and surround myself with many amazing and powerful women. Research has shown that this view was most likely firmly entrenched by the age of four.[1] My automatic tendency is to think of men in a more positive context with regards to careers and women in a more positive context with regards to families.

The ingredients for forming that bias are in place still, with white, straight, thin, not-old men predominantly holding visible positions of power. And when our culture continuously reinforces that stereotype, it takes a concerted effort to visualize other kinds of people holding power in business. Unfortunately, we conflate the norm with the ideal. This is a mistake with profound implications, for we are unconsciously setting the table for the next generation’s implicit biases. That’s why knowing now is so important.

While we can’t help having these biases, it would be irresponsible, once being made aware of them, to not do our utmost to ensure they do not unwittingly impact our behavior. In my case, if I don’t, I would unconsciously allow my biases to influence my interactions, my words and my decisions with others, particularly in my role in evaluating and assessing candidates for clients as an executive search consultant – being the gatekeeper for powerful positions in software and technology. And it is in this context where we can all be vigilant, for who has not been asked to weigh in on a potential candidate in the course of their career?

There is not all bad news, as change has been happening, albeit slowly. There are more women and people of color who are CEOs and on boards today, but they still represent a relative minority and there is significant evidence that a gender bias is still well embedded within certain industries and professions.

With respect to evaluating and hiring, the end-goal, of course, is to become as aware as possible of the factors that influence our decisions. To ask ourselves, to what degree do our various hidden biases impact our selection of candidates? How much do skin color, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference and educational pedigree act as unconscious biases for us to hire or not hire, promote or not promote, or coach or not coach?

Taken together, these implicit biases can form a dangerous kind of unconscious conspiracy to maintain how you define and think of the status-quo--doubly dangerous because these biases remain hidden and silent. As a result, they can do much damage—to careers, to entire organizations and, most importantly, to individual’s hopes and dreams for the future.

I encourage you to both learn about Project Implicit and participate in it at www.projectimplicit.net. Our next blog post will detail the concrete steps you can take to mitigate workplace bias and ensure you are hiring and promoting people who will make the biggest difference with your organization.

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[1] Perszyk et. al. “Bias at the intersection of race and gender: Evidence from preschool‐aged children,” Developmental Science, January 23, 2019, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/desc.12788, (accessed August 9, 2019).

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