Getting conscious about unconscious bias

"We are committed to building a Yale School of Management community that is diverse across many dimensions, including race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability, nationality, socioeconomic status, religion, political opinion, education, and professional experience and aspirations. While a breadth of perspectives is important, we are especially concerned with having the most difficult conversations, hearing the voices least heard and providing leadership where it is urgently needed." -- Yale SOM's Diversity Vision

November 2, 2013

We all have biases.  Mostly unconscious, without a doubt, but we all have them.  When Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo at the age of 37, the world looked at her with increased scrutiny…. How could someone so young run a company so large?  Then again, Bill Gates was only 20 when he founded Microsoft….  Most organizations these days have a policy embracing diversity and espousing non-discrimination; nearly every job posting comes with the usual rhetoric of being “an affirmative action employer”.  But behind closed doors, we talk about people being “too young” or “too old”; trying to get the “best man for the job”.…  While we don’t say it out loud, there are plenty of data suggesting that we also are thinking about how candidates aren’t “white enough”, “slim enough”, or even “tall enough” for leadership positions.....  There is no question that society has certain norms…. When we think of the CEO of a company, invariably the picture of a tall austere-looking Caucasian grey-haired male comes to mind, not people like Indra Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsico (and a Yale SOM alum!).  I am thrilled that there are some role models who are not “male, pale or stale” in leadership positions, but the data seem to suggest that we unconsciously make it harder for them to get ahead…. A study cited by the AAMC found when presented with identical CVs, those associated with a male name resulted in a 10% higher rate of tenure than those with a female name. Similar studies were done for “African American sounding names” and apparently, if you had a “White name”, you were better off as well…. 

Today, the Global Gender Gap report was released, and it was truly shocking to see that the US fell to 23rd – ranking south of the Phillipines (#5), Nicaragua (#10), Latvia (#12), Cuba (#15), Lesotho (#16), Burundi (#22), most European countries and Canada.  The World Economic Forum has found a clear correlation between a country’s gender gap and their competitiveness.  “Because women account for one-half of a country’s potential talent base, a nation’s competitiveness in the long term depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilizes its women”, they note.  Warren Buffett made the same observation earlier this year.  I would argue, however, that this principle holds whether we’re talking about gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, various types of disabilities, or any other distinguishing feature.  Until we learn to identify, nurture and value all of our human capital, our efficiency as a society will not be fully optimized. 

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About the author

Anees Chagpar

MBA for Executives, 2014