By Ellen McGirt
August 31, 2016

Yesterday, we talked about Nextdoor, and how simple, but clear, conversational prompts in an online user interface may be instrumental in helping otherwise well-meaning people become aware of some of their ingrained prejudices before they do or say something dumb. In the case of Nextdoor, the prompts were specifically designed to curb racial profiling in the safety forums in the neighborhood-focused social network.

Could something similar work in real life?

I asked two researchers from the University of Colorado, David Hekman and Stefanie Johnson for their thoughts. Hekman is an associate professor and Johnson is an assistant professor, both of management and entrepreneurship at CU-Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. Both separately and together, they’ve been conducting original research on how bias works and how to interrupt its influence.

It turns out that simply making people aware of bias, particularly when it’s obvious, is enough to make it disappear, at least in the moment.

Johnson cites some of her research using women applying for typically male jobs. She used the example of truck driving. “Let’s say a woman comes in for an interview, which is unusual,” she says. “The man interviewing her is now thinking about how she’s a woman and nothing else. He’s thinking, ‘Huh, should I tell her she’s a woman? Should I mention it?’ — and not considering her qualifications.” But her research shows that if the candidate, or someone advocating for her brings it up — ‘I know I don’t look like your typical candidate, but…’ — it almost uniformly breaks the reverie.

“It gives people a chance to move past the bias,” Johnson says.

It’s now broadly understood that if you have only one non-majority candidate on a list of finalists for a particular position — one woman or person of color — they will almost never be hired. “They tend not to even pay attention to how qualified that person is,” says Johnson, of her research with Hekman on the subject.

If you have at least two, however, the token bias tends to disappear. And their research showed another surprising outcome. “What’s crazy is that the people who are the most racist and sexist [as determined in pre-study testing] are the most positively affected by this manipulation,” says Hekman.

But it will take serious work to break the bigger cycles of bias.

Some of their other recent research, published this past March in the Harvard Business Review, showed that women or people of color who promote or advocate for each other tend to be penalized, which impacts their careers. “Our set of studies suggest that it’s risky for low-status group members to help others like them,” they wrote. “And this can lead to women and minorities choosing not to advocate for other women and minorities once they reach positions of power, as they don’t want to be perceived as incompetent, poor performers.”

So, white men, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

“The best people to advocate are white men,” says Hekman. “They get penalized far less.”

Their advocacy has a ripple effect that can help everyone move past their biases. White male leaders need to bring diversity goals to the attention of others early and often. “Just acknowledging race and gender before decisions are made will help,” Hekman says. “Other people will be less biased in their judgments. And it matters that it comes from the top.”

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