'Unconscious bias' and the limits of diversity in the workplace

Joelle Emerson is working with many of Silicon Valley's superstar startups on improving diversity in the workplace. She says our unconscious bias is a big obstacle.


I recently saw Joelle Emerson speak about diversity in the workplace, during a lunchtime talk at my workplace Delphix. Emerson has lately shot to fame as a high profile advisor to high profile startups such as Pintrest, Airbnb, Slack and a blessing of smaller unicorns, too.

She said many interesting things about gender bias and about our strong attraction to hire people that are just like us. It is narcissistic HR and it's bad for business because diversity in genders, cultures, backgrounds and skills leads to more effective teams.

She spoke about gender bias in the workplace. In meetings men will interrupt women about two-thirds of the time; women interrupt men about one-third of the time; women interrupt women 90% of the time.

Those interruptions are very costly. It nearly always results in the loss of any idea that was being presented.

She spoke about the wording of job descriptions. Women will apply for jobs only if they meet 100% of the qualifications. Men start filling out their application if they meet just 60% of the qualifications. A simple rewording of job descriptions can boost the number of women applicants.

She recommends using calendar notifications as "nudges" and as part of an ongoing "bias mitigation strategy". A "nudge" sent before conducting job interviews will remind us that:

- We make a decision about hiring a person within 10 seconds of meeting them . We use the rest of the interview to justify that decision.

- We have a very strong bias towards people that physically look like ourselves. We also think they are smarter and better looking.

Foremski's Take: Unconscious bias is unconscious and continues with its insidious agenda even when the conscious mind holds the most progressive ideas on diversity. A calendar "nudge" might help a little but what's needed is a way to completely block any bias.

In the 1960s and 1970s large city orchestras struggled in their goals to hire more women musicians. Even with good intentions the number of women being hired was low. That changed dramatically when orchestras started holding auditions behind a curtain. Women grew to outnumber the men in the St. Louis orchestra.

The curtain was an elegant solution to a hard problem. It wasn't the musician that was screened -- the people on the auditioning panel were screened from their unconscious bias.

In the tech industry a variation of this exists with some hiring managers asking assistants to mask the names of job applicants before they review their resume. This technique helps move more women to the interview round and results in more job offers.

Hiring for cultural fit...

Emerson says don't hire people just because you like them. However, many companies say they hire on cultural fit because of the long hours spent together. If you have to work with people you don't like it won't work out well.

Cultural fit in some organizations is often more important than professional skills.

Cultural fit means familiarity in looks and dress; similarity in experiences and backgrounds; and shared lexicons and icons. Cultural fit is hard to fit in with goals of greater diversity.