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Minimizing the Impacts of Implicit Bias

Overcoming bias in the workplace requires both individual effort and systemic change

by Donna Kridelbaugh
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Implicit bias can inhibit our ability to make objective decisions in the workplace based on unconscious preconceived notions and stereotypes of other social groups. This behavior can negatively impact work relationships and performance in the lab setting. It also results in the exclusion of people from marginalized groups gaining entry and promotion in STEM jobs, which hinders innovation and divergent thinking across the scientific industries.

Lab managers can take active steps to raise awareness of their own internal biases and learn tactics to interrupt these biases, promoting fair and equitable treatment of team members. Additionally, leadership must advocate for systemic change in organizational policies to create lasting solutions for overcoming biased behaviors in the workplace and engender a more inclusive and innovative culture focused on employee success.

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What is implicit bias?

Implicit bias can be defined as our deep-seated beliefs, attitudes, or stereotypes that are held at an unconscious level. Such bias can result in behaving favorably or unfavorably toward people with certain social group identities (e.g., age, gender, race/ethnicity). A few other cognitive biases that may manifest in the workplace include affinity (i.e., preference for people like oneself), attribution (i.e., attributing one’s success to skills but to luck for others), and confirmation (i.e., seeking information to confirm one’s existing views).

Implicit biases start forming early in childhood and are influenced by factors that include societal standards, life experiences, and biased media. It can cause us to make snap judgments about other people in a matter of mere milliseconds. In essence, implicit bias is our brain’s way of organizing information and interpreting the world around us. But when this bias inhibits our ability to make objective decisions, it becomes problematic.

Impacts of implicit bias in the workplace

The negative impacts of implicit bias are evident across the STEM pipeline in excluding marginalized groups from these career pathways. Alexis Krohn, co-executive director of the Unconscious Bias Project, points out how this bias emerges early on in science education. For example, research shows that boys are encouraged more than girls to enter STEM fields. In the workplace, implicit bias can significantly influence workforce decisions related to who is hired and promoted, resulting in measurable disparities with proportionally fewer women and minorities holding STEM positions and at lower pay.

Another area impacted by implicit bias is mentoring relationships. “Often, biased leaders will mentor and include in their network staff who are most similar to them, while excluding staff who they may have less in common with them regardless of their skills,” comments Nikko Viquiera, deputy SVP of programs at Race Forward. This biased mentoring may prevent marginalized groups from entering leadership positions, who, in many cases, are the very people needed to promote equitable policies and advocate for systemic change.

Developing self-awareness of implicit bias

The first step in confronting implicit bias is self-awareness, such as taking an implicit association test to acknowledge any inherent biases. Krohn also recommends managers enlist the help of a “bias buddy” who is at the same managerial level. “Bias buddies can help point out what we call the ‘spinach in your teeth’—the biased behaviors you aren’t aware of but may be pretty embarrassing once you know about it,” she says.

While implicit bias happens at the unconscious level, there are proven techniques to help debias the brain at least in the short term. One way to do so is to diversify your interactions with other social groups to counterbalance existing stereotypical biases. This method can be accomplished by working with interdisciplinary and diverse teams on special projects, participating in employee resource groups, and consuming various media sources.

Lab managers can take active steps to raise awareness of their own internal biases and learn tactics to interrupt these biases to promote fair and equitable treatment of team members.

Carmen T. Acton, founder of executive coaching and leadership development agency Masterful Collaboration, offers helpful suggestions in her Harvard Business Review article “Are You Aware of Your Biases?” on how leaders can address their implicit biases: be open to feedback, let others challenge your assumptions, and embrace diverse perspectives. Acton also says to strive to be more mindful when making decisions. “There are many factors that can cause us to default to a bias, particularly in the age of information overload and the sense of urgency we tend to feel to make decisions and move on,” she explains.

Interrupting implicit bias in workforce decisions

Once you are aware of implicit bias, you can take actionable steps to interrupt biased behaviors in the workplace. There are ways to build in checkpoints to ensure implicit bias has less of an influence on workplace decisions.

The organization Bias Interrupters provides many evidence-based toolkits to address implicit bias in human resources decisions, from hiring and recruiting and performance evaluations to compensation and leave policies. Some of these tactics are as simple as redacting personal info on résumés during the hiring process to ensuring performance evaluations are based on set criteria that follow a position description.

As a lab manager, you also have the responsibility to lead by example in continually challenging implicit bias, adopting an inclusive leadership style, and being open with employees about expectations related to equity in the workplace. “We must invest time and resources into building a shared understanding of biases and inequities so we can identify them when they show up,” says Viquiera. “We cannot address something that we do not recognize.”

Lasting solutions require systemic change

STEM fields have a long history of prejudice, from scientific racism to workplace discrimination. It is important to recognize systemic structures that limit marginalized groups from fully participating in the scientific enterprise. Overcoming the impacts of implicit bias can be more difficult in environments engrained with this history and culture.

Additionally, implicit bias can reflect institutional bias. “When unconscious bias is unchecked, it can influence organizational decision-making processes,” says Viquiera. “In this way, our individual biases become operationalized into our organization’s policies, practices, and culture.” Thus, systemic change is needed to safeguard against individual biased behaviors and ensure equitable treatment no matter who is in charge.

Identifying existing inequities in policies

A first approach is to identify where inequities exist in the work environment, such as having a third party conduct an equity assessment or climate survey. Krohn also emphasizes that even the perception of inequity among employees can be discouraging and create a morale problem. Addressing this perception requires clear communications, transparency, and actionable policy from organizational leadership.

Another useful tool is the Racial Equity Impact Assessment developed by Race Forward, which can be incorporated into organizational decision-making processes to interrupt biases early on and prevent institutional racism. This process-driven approach enables leadership to evaluate how various racial and ethnic groups may be affected by a proposed change in policy and minimize any unintended consequences of that decision.

Creating a shared vision for equitable policies

Once equity gaps are identified, then solutions can be tested. Krohn mentions that, during climate surveys, employees share anonymous feedback on workplace issues, including simple fixes that managers may not be aware of. “Frequently in the interviews, the people who are having the negative experiences themselves are the ones who have put a lot of thought into how we might fix it,” she says. “A lot of it is passing on, anonymously, the wisdom of the employees themselves.”

Viquiera adds that it is important to build in evaluation processes to check if a policy change has improved working conditions for those experiencing inequities and continue to test out solutions over time. “Finally, we must make sure that our organizations are grounded in a shared vision of equity; that we are explicit about our desire to combat biases, inequities, and injustice through our policies, practices, and culture,” he concludes.