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Beyond the Syllabus: Learning to Address Bias

In a newly-created course, Understanding and Reducing Bias in Organizations, Professor Jayanti Owens leads students through the best research-backed approaches to improving fairness in hiring and performance evaluations, reducing the wage gap, and other means to build more just companies and teams. 

In this series, we talk to Yale SOM faculty members about how they develop and deliver innovative courses.

Course: Understanding and Reducing Bias in Organizations
Faculty member: Jayanti Owens, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior

Diversity is a uniquely contentious topic. Studies have found links between measures of diversity and organizational performance. And yet efforts to increase diversity face backlash. The U.S. Supreme Court recently swept away decades of affirmative action in higher education, while corporate DEI initiatives face pressure from investors and activists who question the value of such programs.

This is a terrain young leaders will have to navigate for decades to come. It’s little surprise that student demand for courses covering it has grown.

Jayanti Owens, an expert in how organizations negotiate diversity and difference, took on the task of developing and deploying such a course at Yale SOM. The elective Understanding and Reducing Bias in Organizations was offered for the first time in spring 2024.

The course, Owens says, is founded on research into what really works and prepares future managers to have impact over the course of their careers, as they will likely encounter bias in many forms and contexts. 

The course is motivated by a desire to help students gain an understanding of the organizational levers they can pull to try to reduce the effects of bias and to increase belonging within organizations, while also learning strategies at the interpersonal level for effectively managing groups and teams who come from a broad range of backgrounds.

A leadership toolkit

The course builds from an examination of how bias functions and how it can impede organizational performance to study strategies to counteract that effect and foster belonging. The course utilizes research and case studies from both public and private sector organizations, with a focus on bias and inequality along lines of race/ethnicity and gender in the U.S., the areas where research is most developed.

We are thinking about organizations broadly. And so, across the course we study applications to businesses, whether that be financial services or retail or other consumer products, the government, and education. Because ‘business and society’ is such a dual focus at SOM, we want students to think about not only, how can I be enacting these principles in my workplace, but also how can I be a better citizen? How can I do this work in a way that permeates all aspects of my life?

Teaching on the leading edge of knowledge

The landscape of leadership and DEI is changing fast. While the course draws on research into what interventions have been shown to work, sometimes the research lags the real world. Owens says that students and speakers help bridge that gap by bringing real experiences to the classroom discussion.

This is a course that’s about evidence-based research. That means we have to wait for the research to go through the peer review process and then get published and disseminated. I would say the social landscape and the policy landscape is changing faster than the research, but there’s ongoing research to keep pace with those changes.

Learning by teaching

Owens’s research uses a range of methods, including social experiments and large-scale data analysis, to examines how organizations negotiate diversity and difference. She has won multiple awards for her studies of how racial and ethnic bias operate in K-12 schools and is currently studying how to make evaluation processes in organizations—such as performance reviews—fairer for people in minority groups, among other relevant topics.

It is an absolute pleasure and privilege to be teaching in this area because it is an area that is very close to my own research and to the things that motivated me to be a researcher in the first place. The conversations we have in class feed back into my research and give me practitioner perspectives on how the research I’m doing can be applied more effectively in different organizational settings.

Recommended reading from the course