If You Think You’re Unbiased, You’re Wrong

In 1996 Anne Marie Scharer found herself seated behind a large screen, French horn in hand, auditioning for her dream job—a full-time position with New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. For weeks, her friends had helped her prepare by shouting out random requests from a required playlist. To summon the proper mood for each piece, Scharer had scrawled words like tranquil and heroic on the sheet music. But the biggest thing she had going for her was that screen. By masking her identity from the dozen or so members of the hiring committee, it guaranteed that she’d be judged on her performance, not her gender.

Between 1970 and 1997, after such screens had become embraced for blind auditions, the odds that a woman would advance beyond the first rounds of a tryout increased by 50 percent, according to Harvard and Princeton researchers. Gradually the percentage of women in the nation’s premier orchestras climbed from less than 5 to 35 percent.

The Met orchestra is now evenly split between men and women. “In fact, we laugh about it,” boasts Scharer, who has performed with the organization for nearly two decades. “We’re like, ‘Oh, a guy won. Wow!’ Because we’ve had a streak of mostly women.” The Met’s rich diversity includes more than a dozen Asian violinists, two African-American trumpet players, an English horn player from Puerto Rico and a clarinetist from Russia. The group is in many ways a perfect microcosm of the melting-pot city it represents.

To appreciate that achievement, consider the U.S. Congress— 80 percent male and 80 percent white—elected to represent the interests of the 50 states’ citizens. Or the boardrooms of the Fortune 500, where men hold eight out of every 10 seats. Or the overwhelmingly white Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which in the year of Selma did not include a single minority actor or director among its Oscar nominees. In Silicon Valley, women comprised less than 25 percent of the workforce. The media industry is no better, with men holding 77 percent of upper management positions.

Can we install a screen in every office? No, but we can try harder to see the inequities around us that serve to preserve a flawed status quo. Intel announced in January that it would invest $300 million to improve diversity among employees. What specifically can be done? Here’s what the experts have to say:

Start at the top. Intel CEO Brian M. Krzanich conceded as much when he vowed to make his workforce fully diverse by 2020 in an address at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. “We believe that a more inclusive workforce makes us a stronger company,” he said. Speaking as a representative of an industry with a culture described by Newsweek as “savagely misogynistic,” Krzanich invoked the image of his two teenage daughters to drive the point home. “I want them to have an equal chance to run a company like Intel one day,” he told a reporter from Bloomberg Business.

Krzanich didn’t pretend to have a can’t-miss plan, but unlike his peers who routinely throw their hands up and complain about the limited depth in Silicon Valley’s talent pool, he made diversity a strategic initiative, laid down goals and linked those goals to manager pay. That’s how you make it clear to your constituents that you’re not messing around, says tech pioneer Ken Coleman, a former longtime executive at Hewlett-Packard and Silicon Graphics. “In every business, people track what they believe is important: growth, profits, cost per impressions for marketing, whatever,” he explains. “So if you think diversity is important, you have to measure it and set objectives.”

It’s not about compliance; it’s about competition. Is it good public relations to have a staff that reflects the faces in your community? You bet, but Ted Childs isn’t a proponent of political correctness. He’s a fan of dollar signs. “I don’t care who you hate,” he says. “You don’t hate them more than you love money.”

In his four decades at IBM, the renowned talent scout did plenty of research and observation to demonstrate the value of diversity. Thanks to people like him, we now know that diverse teams tend to outperform their more uniform counterparts. Study after study confirms that it doesn’t matter how much brainpower you assemble; if you don’t have facilitators to harness that power, a range of perspectives to beta test it and communicators who can translate those epiphanies into simple directives, you’re destined for disappointment. To remain innovative, you have to maintain a broad outlook.

In a landmark project chronicled in the Harvard Business Review, Childs, as chief diversity officer, executed a plan that created eight task forces, each populated with executives and managers from a specific IBM community: white male, female, Asian, Hispanic, black, Native American, LGBT and those with disabilities. Then he provided those groups with a list of questions regarding their constituents. The idea wasn’t to simply learn how to make IBM more attractive to minority talent, but also to explore ways to expand the company’s customer base. Among the initiatives that emerged from the exercise was a campaign to provide more support to small and midsize businesses owned by women and minorities. Another identified new federal contract regulations designed to reward companies that manufactured products accessible to people with disabilities. In time, the recommendations from Childs’ task forces generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

That’s why he advises corporate clients to think of diversity programs as a bridge between the workplace and the marketplace.

If you think you’re unbiased, you’re wrong. “It’s not like people lie in bed at night and think, How am I going to discriminate against somebody tomorrow?” says Coleman, who serves as a special adviser to Andreessen Horowitz. “It doesn’t work that way.”

The reality is more insidious and has to do with human nature and the fear of making mistakes. “All social systems have a tendency to recreate themselves,” Coleman explains. “So if I start a company with two guys from Harvard and one guy from Yale, I will want to hire guys who went to Ivys because that feels less risky to me.”

These visions of success and failure often cloud our judgment. A study conducted by Yale researchers revealed that even science professors—male and female—evaluate the information on a résumé more harshly when the applicant is a woman. When presented with two identical summaries—one for a candidate named John, the other for a candidate named Jennifer—faculty members at six major research universities revealed their hidden biases. On a scale of 1 to 7, they awarded Jennifer on average a 3.3 for competence. John scored a 4, not to mention an annual salary roughly $4,000 higher than Jennifer’s for the same work in an entry-level lab position.

Absurd as this may seem, bias like this plays out all the time.

“In a lot of companies, they have these images of what a good leader looks like,” says Mason Donovan, co-author of The Inclusion Dividend: Why Investing in Diversity & Inclusion Pays Off. “But that very notion of a good fit is biased in a certain direction—biased toward those who occupied those positions in the past.”

It takes effort. You have to go out and recruit. You don’t stop the search at MIT. You visit Georgia Tech, Tuskegee and Morehouse, too. You go to the annual Stars and Stripes Dinner and introduce yourself to the tech talent from the armed forces. You reach out to groups that cater to black engineers, LGBT professionals, Hispanic programmers—whatever skill set you might need. And you insist that your managers do their homework before they make a hiring decision.

“If you don’t think about it and you don’t do anything about it, you will not get diversity,” says leadership consultant Bonnie St. John, who won a silver medal and two bronze medals as a downhill skier at the 1984 Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria. “Diversity doesn’t happen by accident.” When the NFL set out to counter charges of bias in its upper ranks, she adds, it unveiled the Rooney Rule, requiring its franchises to interview minority candidates for all openings in senior football operations including head coaches and general managers. In 2001 the league had two black coaches. It now has five—and one Hispanic.

But finding the right people to fill those roles is only half the battle.

“It’s not hard to hire great people,” Childs says. “It’s hard to keep them.” Just ask the folks in Silicon Valley, where one out of every two women ends up bolting the tech industry mid-career. Once you bring new talent in the door, you can’t let up. You have to make sure everyone feels included, respected, free to be herself or himself. Keep in mind that people have different ways of sharing ideas, expressing themselves and celebrating success. Maybe that team-building poker night at the local cigar bar isn’t such a good idea after all. When you’re trying to lay out the welcome mat, so many things can trip you up. Not long ago, Google employees noticed that all the conference rooms in a campus building were named after male scientists. Another review revealed that only 10 percent of the birthdays celebrated on the website’s doodles honored women.

“All of those policies, procedures, norms—written and unwritten—kind of control the culture,” says Donovan’s business partner and co-author Mark Kaplan. “If you don’t put your resources into changing those, people will come and go, but the issues will remain.”

If you don’t make the effort, you lose. The numbers speak for themselves. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, minorities will represent 90 percent of the nation’s population growth between 1995 and 2050. Even more telling, blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans already represent almost $3 trillion in buying power.

“The America of today does not look like the America of the Founding Fathers,” Childs says.

The Hispanic market alone harbors more financial clout than all but 15 countries in the world. The landscape is changing right before our eyes. Nashville, Tenn., has the largest Kurdish population in the United States. Minnesota is home to more than 100,000 people from sub-Saharan Africa. These days, you don’t have to be a multinational corporation to sell to consumers from Myanmar and Vietnam. Both groups have sizable communities in the United States. And thanks to the Internet, you can open up shop in downtown Wichita, Kan., and employ service staff in Bangladesh and factory workers in Beijing.

“The decision-makers in your markets are getting more and more diverse,” Kaplan says. “It’s not only about what happens internally, how to build good teams, but also about how you relate with clients.”

The man knows what he’s talking about. The corporate consulting firm he operates with Donovan is in Salisbury, N.H., but more than half of its clients hail from outside the U.S.

Go ahead and embrace your differences. That’s right, we live in a new world. The nation’s largest school system—New York City’s—officially observes two Muslim holidays. Athletes with disabilities scale Everest, compete in the Olympics and throw pitches for the New York Yankees. In the U.S., minority-owned businesses open at more than twice the rate of all others.

We need to stop thinking about diversity programs as a form of affirmative action. They’re strategic imperatives. “Don’t look at your clients and say, ‘Well, I think of everyone the same,’ ” says St. John, whose right leg was amputated when she was a child. “Don’t! Think of them as different. Go after the opportunities.”

That’s what innovation leader IBM started doing all the way back in 1995. Childs’ task force project was such a resounding success that the company created employee networks to broaden the discussion. More than a forum for issues, they soon became a valuable resource for employee development and retention—and, of course, a fountain of new ideas. The market development unit the company launched to identify sales and support opportunities tied to women- and minority-owned businesses resulted in $300 million in new revenue in 2001 alone. Products for people with disabilities are on track to add $1 billion to the bottom line. And among the constituencies IBM tracks, gays and lesbians rank highest in education level, computer literacy and disposable income.

The Road Ahead

On a chilly Saturday in February, 14 schoolgirls, backpacks and lunchboxes in tow, braved an oncoming blizzard to attend a computer science class at Drexel University. If the leaders of Intel and Google thought like Division I basketball coaches, the inner-city Philadelphia campus would have been crawling with silver-tongued recruiters extolling the wonders of Silicon Valley. Instead the girls quietly filed into a dreary classroom, shucked their puffy pink and purple coats, and took their seats behind the keyboards. All between the ages of 10 and 15, they’d come to learn about video game design—a skill once reserved exclusively for their fathers and brothers.

While they peered into their glowing monitors, slowly summoning to life an impish, red-cape-clad heroine with a magic wand, Tracey Welson-Rossman, the chief marketing officer of local software developer Chariot Solutions, explains why she had brought the girls together. The only female executive employed by the 60-employee firm, she wondered for years why so few women applied for jobs at the company. “This is a great field to be in,” she says. “It’s flexible. You can work from home. The pay is really good. And if you keep up your skill set, you’re always in demand.”

She learned that the number of women pursuing careers in electronics and computer science has been dwindling over the past 30 years. Some of it has to do with educators’ failure to encourage the Marissa Mayers of tomorrow. Some of it has to do with perception: The dorky, maladjusted, hoodie-wearing genius icon that permeates Silicon Valley mythology is hardly a draw. Either way, research suggests that girls have been opting out of tech in ninth grade. “When you get right down to it, they are just consumers of tech, not creators of tech,” Welson-Rossman says.

So she set out to capture those girls before society scared them off. In 2010 she launched the nonprofit TechGirlz, which offers workshops on programming, podcasting, app creation, robotics and website design. On weekends, holidays and occasionally after school, volunteers from the organization’s IT army provide the instruction, using a curriculum heavy on collaboration and exploration—in the way girls like to have fun. Students find mentors, a sense of community and a place to go in search of answers to their questions. “Seventy percent of our kids come back to take more than one class,” says Welson-Rossman. “Our wait list has a wait list.”

Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code and others now offer similar programs. Their success not only challenges the notion that minorities and girls have little interest in tech, but it also reveals the greater challenge facing companies like Intel. For decades, they feasted on pools of talent near at hand, which explains why the company picnics were populated by plenty of Asian men who were well-represented in the high schools and colleges attended by Silicon Valley’s titans. But with the increase in competition from Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter, those pools no longer run as deep as they once did.

It will be a while before Welson-Rossman’s pupils make their way into the workforce, but in the meantime we can attack the barriers that hinder their older sisters. Carnegie Mellon, for example, revised its admission standards, removing some of the bias that favored applicants with high school tech experience. The ratio of women in its computer science program jumped from 7 percent in the 1990s to 40 percent.

We need to find more solutions like that. We need to scrutinize the messages we’re sending. We need to acknowledge that women make the majority of the spending decisions in America’s households, so it’s important to include them in the design process. Without a diverse set of eyes, you end up with Google Glass or the Edsel—both skillfully designed, but painfully out of step with the times. 

Have you hired a team of clones? That’s not good. Learn 4 ways diversity helps overcome the gaps created by a team that lacks variety.


This article appears in the October 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.


Chris Raymond is a contributing editor for SUCCESS magazine.

Leave a Comment