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Acknowledging Implicit Biases

By Pat Wilson

Untitled Document
Princeton: Say, Kate, can I ask you a question?
Kate Monster: Sure!
Princeton: Well, you know Trekkie Monster upstairs?
Kate Monster: Uh huh.
Princeton: Well, he’s Trekkie Monster, and you’re Kate Monster.
Kate Monster: Right.
Princeton: You’re both Monsters.
Kate Monster: Yeah.
Princeton: Are you two related?
Kate Monster: What?! Princeton, I’m surprised at you! I find that racist!
Princeton: Oh, well, I’m sorry! I was just asking!
Kate Monster: Well, it’s a touchy subject. No, not all Monsters are related. What are you trying say, huh? That we all look the same to you?

The dialog above sets up the song, Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist from the Broadway musical, “Avenue Q.”  Beyond the catchy tune, the song acknowledges something we know is true: we all harbor biases about different people based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and a host of other categories like Southerner or Yankee.

With this post, we continue our focus on cultural intelligence, the challenge for the month of July.  We noted in the first blog post on this challenge that developing cultural intelligence involves five steps.  With this post, we discuss the third step, addressing implicit bias.  We challenge you to address the implicit bias you may have learned along the way.

As the song from Avenue Q notes, bigotry has never been exclusively white; we all harbor biases, some overt biases and some implicit or unconscious biases because we are human.  Experts believe that implicit biases are the result of adaptive behavior, the need to “function at maximum capacity by finding patterns among information or events or groups of individuals as a way of enabling us to make decisions without really thinking about it” according to Dr. Kierra S. Barnett, a post-doctoral researcher at the Kirwan Institute.   Dr. Michelle van Ryan, a professor at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Nursing notes that, “[I]mplicit biases are basically this [learning] system applying whatever information [the system has] learned, even if it’s negative and inaccurate, to whole groups of people.”  

That an individual harbors biases doesn’t make him or her a bad person, unless, that individual refuses to acknowledge their own biases or acts out of those biases in ways that cause tangible harm to the people with whom they interact or the organizations with which they work.  Plenty of studies in the health care field document the effects implicit bias can have on patient care.  For examples, see here and here

But the impact of implicit bias is not limited to health care.  Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan conducted a field study to answer the question, “Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”  Bertrand and Mullainathan discovered, using fictitious resumes to respond to help-wanted ads in Chicago and Boston, that having a name associated with African Americans (like Jamal and Lakisha) resulted in significantly fewer callbacks for interviews than those candidates assumed to be white because of names like Emily and Greg, even though the credentials were the same.

We in the legal field are not immune to unconscious bias. Researchers from the leadership consulting firm Nextion submitted a legal memo drafted by five law firm partners from different firms to some 53 other partners at 22 law firms who agreed to participate in a writing analysis study, in which they would evaluate the submitted memo.    All evaluators were told the memo was written by Thomas Meyer, a third-year associate who was a graduate of NYU Law School.  However, approximately half of the evaluators were told the hypothetical Thomas Meyer was black; the other half were told he was white.  The average evaluation of the memo by the white Thomas Meyer scored almost a full point higher than that of the black Thomas Meyer, 4.1 versus 3.2.  The Nextion researchers were clever; they intentionally inserted 22 errors into the memo.  The evaluators of the black Thomas Meyer were more likely to find those errors than the evaluators of the white Thomas Meyer.

We urge you to consider your own biases, particularly your implicit biases.  If you have not taken one of the implicit attitude tests that are part of a Harvard study and meant to disclose unconscious biases, I urge you to take one here.  We acknowledge that the Harvard has its detractors, but that the IAT may be flawed is not evidence that implicit bias doesn’t exist.  Rather, measuring it may be difficult.

Finally, I encourage you to review at least the executive summary of the ABA study, You Can’t Change What You Can’t See:  Interrupting Racial & Gender Bias in the Legal Profession.  It outlines four patterns of bias in the legal profession:  1) prove-it-again bias; 2) tightrope bias; 3) maternal wall bias; and 4) tug of war bias.  Consider whether you, or your firm or organization, may have unwittingly slipped into these patterns.   Implicit biases are difficult to change, but we can start by acknowledging them. 


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Self Awareness – Cultural Awareness

By Pat Wilson

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’” 

–David Wallace Foster

While Foster was urging general awareness of the world, the same should be said of culture. It is so much a part of who we are that it is often easy to forget it until we become the proverbial fish out of water or we encounter others who are unfamiliar with the water in which we swim.

As we continue our focus on developing cultural intelligence as one tool in the leader’s tool kit, the first step is awareness of one’s own culture. Culture, as you will recall, is the values, norms, and traditions that affect how individuals of a particular group perceive, think, interact, behave, and make judgements about the world. Culture is so ingrained in us that, for example, as Americans, we may fail to understand why people from other parts of the world recoil at our offer of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a quick snack, unaware that while the PB&J sandwich is a well-established part of American culture (according to a survey, the average American adult consumes three PB&J sandwiches every month, and nearly half of Americans regularly enjoy a good PB&J sandwich), many non-Americans find this combination of flavors disgusting, according to delish.com; they prefer other foods that are part of their culture. Vegemite, anyone? How about chocolate-covered locusts?

When we’re talking about culture, there’s rarely a right or a wrong; there’s just different.  Different ideas on food are amusing, but imagine how harmful it can be when “different” is viewed negatively. Recently, a colleague relayed a story about an interview to hire a new professor in his department. The male candidate, hailing from one of the African countries, repeatedly referred to his spouse as “Wife” rather than using her given name, a practice the other members of the interview team found demeaning and off-putting, failing to recognize that in the candidate’s culture, his reference to her as, “Wife” was a show of respect to his spouse. They opted not to advance the candidate in the hiring process, perhaps missing out on a wonderful addition to the department. Making a value judgement about another culture, especially a negative one, can harm one’s endeavors and undermine developing the cross-cultural relationships essential to being an effective leader.

The first step to being a leader who can interact effectively with people of different cultures is to become aware of the water in which we swim. We can’t understand other cultures unless we are sensitive to our own. A simple exercise, adapted from an article in the Journal of Management Education, gives you and the individuals you teach or mentor a chance to consider your own culture. For this exercise, consider how you would describe your culture, focusing on what distinguishes you culturally from others, describing some of the customs, rituals, and ceremonies associated with your cultural group. Continue by considering a member of your cultural group, excluding family members, who is a good role model for others in your cultural group and what makes them a good role model. Finally, consider a situation when you felt out of place because of being different from others. What was it that made you feel different? To take this exercise a step further, answer the same questions, placing yourself in the shoes of a person from a different cultural background.

As you think about your culture, keep in mind that you are influenced by many cultures of which you are a member: American culture; legal culture; the culture of your race or ethnicity; religious culture; and many others. Developing cultural intelligence is not a one-time goal to be checked off on the to-do list of effective leadership. Rather it involves regularly engaging in activities to enhance one’s cultural intelligence, and regularly thinking about this first step. It’s not an easy step to take, but it is well worthwhile.



Alternative Exercise

To get a better sense of your culture, consider the following questions:

How do people in your culture greet each other? With a hug? A handshake? A kiss on the cheek?

How do you address people in your culture? With a title? By first name, regardless of the age of the speaker or the listener? As Auntie or Uncle?

What response is appropriate when those in your culture are paid a compliment? A simple thank you or a compliment in return? 

How do people in your culture disagree with each other? How do they criticize or correct each other? Who is allowed to be critical?

How do people in your culture treat individuals that are outside the group?

This is a non-exhaustive list (obviously) to start to focus on those parts of the cultures in which you swim that may differ from those outside your culture. Please feel free to share your thoughts about this exercise and your observations about culture in the comments below.