If You Have a Brain, You Have a Bias
Bringing a variety of perspectives to a problem leads to better decision-making—as Boston Scientific has demonstrated in many years of hiring and promoting people of diverse backgrounds. But individuals may encounter “unconscious biases” that inhibit both job satisfaction and out-of-the-box thinking, says Camille Chang Gilmore, VP of HR and Global Chief Diversity Officer, a Jamaican-Chinese woman with more than 20 years of experience in human resources. In a conversation with Emily Anderson, Director of Global Corporate Communications, Camille shares that everyone has hidden biases and tackling them is a life-long process.
Emily: Camille, we’re excited to hear your thoughts about unconscious bias, or implicit bias — a topic that is top of mind for many. Please tell us what this bias is and how it operates in the workplace.
Camille: Well basically, if you have a brain, you have a bias. Biases are based on several factors—how you grew up, judgments made by your experiences, educational, economic and social background. By definition, it is unsupported judgments that run outside of your conscious awareness. In the workplace that could mean a variety of things, but one study from the University of Toronto[i], demonstrates how big of an issue this can be. Researchers created two versions of resumes for black and Asian job applicants—some of them “whitened” to remove any signs of the applicants’ ethnicity. When posted on job search websites, 25% of the whitened resumes from black candidates got callbacks from companies committed to boosting diversity, compared to just 10% of resumes revealing ethnicity and aimed at those same companies. The winning resumes described exactly the same skill sets—the candidates just sounded less “black.”
This is fascinating—and very troubling. Has it played into your own experiences?
I remember noticing unconscious bias in college, and I used to talk to my mother about it. She is an amazing person who worked three jobs to put me through school at Penn State after my dad died. I would describe encounters to her—what I would call micro-aggressions—and one of the things she taught me was to stay focused on things that really mattered which was my education and doing excellent work. I remember filling out an application in the school’s financial aid office, where you check the box that says you’re black, Hispanic, Native American, etc. So, I checked “other” and wrote “Jamaican-Chinese.” The woman who was helping me said: “Oh no honey, you are black,” then grabbed the pencil, erased what I wrote and put a check in the other box. Maybe she thought this would increase my chances for financial aid. To me, it was painful, and I wondered: “Why aren’t you fully acknowledging who I really am?”
It seems like there are more and more people who wouldn’t or shouldn’t be willing to check the box.
Exactly. Now we have Generation Z, the young adults born from 1990 to around 2000, who may be the most diverse generation in our history. A lot of them come from mixed cultures. How are we going to allow them to acknowledge their full selves? I don’t just mean when they fill out a form. I mean as they go through their work lives and interact with others.
So, what are the best ways to start dealing with unconscious bias in work environments?
The first step is recognition, so even simple solutions have a big impact. For example, we worked with an outside global expert to develop e-learning focused on unconscious bias awareness and required that all leaders who manage people take the course. It was so effective, that we have made it available to all employees. The training runs through scenarios—like the hypothetical case of a hiring manager who’s sifting through resumes and reflexively rejecting those with unfamiliar or foreign-sounding names. Or maybe the manager deciding not to promote a woman because she’s pregnant, without stopping to think about it. The training is self-motivated, and the point isn’t to get a good grade. In fact, people sometimes go back and redo it a year later just to see how they’re doing.
We also work with outside groups to deepen the experience, right?
Yes, it’s part of a mindset that may begin with e-learning but connects to other activities, if people are motivated. We encourage employees to work with organizations that will open their hearts as well as their minds. It might be as simple as attending a meeting of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). We also offer training with programs like Men Advocating for Real Change (MARC)[ii]. In one exercise that’s powerful, we have women sitting inside a circle talking about the difficult situations they face at work – whether it’s feeling unheard, being underrepresented in important decision-making situations or having been treated disrespectfully. While this is happening, male colleagues are witnessing and listening to the conversation and for many of them, it’s the first time they’ve heard these kinds of stories.
How do you avoid a backlash against diversity and inclusion programs, such as fears about reverse exclusion?
I have been conscious of this and have taken a deliberate approach to build an understanding that diversity and inclusion applies to everyone. For example, when I took the job, I decided to focus, not on blacks and women as people might expect, but on the LGBTQ+ community. It’s a constituency where no one is excluded—meaning everyone is connected with someone who belongs to the group. In my second year, my focus was on those with a disability—again because whoever you are, if you are not disabled yourself, you know someone who is. Once I felt there was an understanding that we were here for everyone, then I felt it was appropriate to start digging deeper and say, okay, what does this mean for people of color and women? I set the foundation for people to understand that diversity and inclusion this is not just about race or gender.
Camille, thank you so much. One of the things I take away is that conquering unconscious bias isn’t an activity you can check off a list and be done with.
You’re right, Emily. It’s a lifelong process—and that’s a good thing. It’s been a pleasure talking with you; we should do it again soon.
[i] Original U. Toronto study: https://bit.ly/2HMVj8E; HBS coverage: https://hbs.me/2BKLG5u
[ii] A program run by the nonprofit advisory Catalyst