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

UPDATED: January 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: January 22, 2023
diverse group of colleagues in workplace

In 1996 Anne Marie Scharer found herself seated behind a large screen, French horn in hand. She was 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 hiring committee, it guaranteed that she’d be judged on her performance, not her gender.

A quick look at diversity in the workplace

Between 1970 and 1997, after such screens had become embraced for blind auditions, the odds that a woman would advance beyond “certain preliminary rounds” of a tryout increased by 50%, according to a 2000 study published in the American Economic Review. Gradually, the percentage of women in the nation’s premier orchestras climbed to “about 35% for the BSO [Boston Symphony Orchestra] and Chicago [the Chicago Symphony Orchestra], and about 50% for the NYPhil [New York Philharmonic], whereas before 1970 less than 10% of new hires were women.”

To appreciate that achievement, consider the U.S. Congress—of the roughly 540 members, only about 27% are women and just under 11% are Black. The percentage of Hispanic and Latino (9.6%), Asian/Pacific Islander (3.9%) and Native American (1.1%) members each fall under 10% of the “total congressional membership.” Or the boardrooms of the Fortune 500, where the percentage of female and minority board representation reached only 38.3% in 2020, according to the “Missing Pieces Report” by Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity. Or the overwhelmingly white Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which in the year of Selma did not include a single minority actor among its Oscar nominees. Or how, according to a 2020 study published by AnitaB.org, women make up just under 29% of the tech workforce.

Achieving diversity in the workplace

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. Here’s what the experts have to say about what specifically can be done about increasing diversity in the workplace.

1. Start at the top. 

Former Intel CEO Brian M. Krzanich conceded as much when he vowed to make his workforce fully diverse by 2020 in an address at the 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 he made diversity in the workplace 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.”

2. Diversity in the workplace is about competition, not compliance. 

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 nearly four decades at IBM, Childs did plenty of research to demonstrate the value of diversity in the workplace. Thanks to people like him, we now know that diverse teams tend to outperform their more uniform counterparts. 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 by David A. Thomas and Ayesha Kanji for Harvard Business School in 2004, Childs, as vice president of workforce diversity, executed a plan that created eight task forces. Each task force was populated with executives and managers from a specific IBM community: “Asian, Black, Gay and Lesbian [renamed in 2000 by the group to “Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT)” to increase inclusivity], Hispanic, Native American, People with Disabilities (PWD), White Men and Women.” 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. The idea was also to explore ways to expand the company’s customer base. 

Among the initiatives that emerged from the exercise was a group formed to “[identify] and [support] sales and marketing strategies” that could be utilized to reach women- and minority-owned businesses. Another identified a federal amendment that would not only require accessible technology, but which would “[support and encourage] the development of technologies that would help bridge the technology gap for persons with disabilities.” Not only did the PWD task force ensure compliance, they “established a worldwide accessibility project office” in 2002 to ensure all products and services were made accessible. 

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.

3. 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. “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 2012 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 U.S. universities revealed their hidden biases. On a scale of 1 to 7, they awarded Jennifer a 3.3 for competence on average. John scored a 4. Plus, he earned 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-founder of the Dagoba Group and 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.”

4. Achieving diversity in the workplace takes effort. 

You have to go out and recruit. You don’t stop the search at MIT. Visit Georgia Tech, Tuskegee and Morehouse, too. Go to the annual Stars and Stripes Dinner and introduce yourself to the tech talent from the armed forces. Reach out to groups that cater to Black engineers, LGBTQ 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 Fortune 500 leadership consultant Bonnie St. John, who won a silver medal and two bronze medals as an alpine 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 prompted the creation of the Rooney Rule, requiring its franchises to interview minority candidates for an increasing variety of open roles. Progress, however, has been slow. There are the same number of Black head coaches as there were the year the Rooney Rule took effect—that is, three—alongside just three other minority head coaches.

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 women in the tech industry, 50% of whom will leave their jobs by age 35, according to a survey conducted by Accenture and Girls Who Code. Once you bring new talent in the door, you can’t let up. You have to make sure everyone feels included, respected and free to be themselves. 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. 

“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.”

5. If you don’t make the effort, you lose. 

The numbers speak for themselves. According to U.S. Census Bureau population projections, the population of “non-Hispanic White” individuals will fall from 61.3% in 2016 to 44.3% in 2060, while the Hispanic population will rise from 17.8% to 27.5% and the population of Black individuals will rise from 13.3% to 15%. Even more telling, the buying power of “African American, Asian American and Native American consumers… has exploded over the past 30 years, up from $458 billion in 1990 to $3 trillion in 2020,” according to the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth. Not only that, but Hispanic buying power rose to $1.9 trillion, while African American buying power increased to $1.6 trillion.

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

The landscape is changing right before our eyes. Nashville, Tennessee, has the largest Kurdish population in the United States. As of 2019, Minnesota is home to 6% of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Migration Policy Institute. (The highest population of sub-Saharan African immigrants—12%—residing in Texas.) These days, you don’t have to be a multinational corporation to sell to consumers from Myanmar and Vietnam. Both groups have communities in the United States. And thanks to the Internet, you can open up shop in downtown Wichita, Kansas, 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 based in New England, but about half of its clients hail from outside the U.S.

6. Go ahead and embrace your differences. 

That’s right, we live in a new world. In 2015, New York City began officially observing two Muslim holidays—the “first large metropolis in America” to recognize Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Individuals with disabilities scale Everest, compete in the Olympics and throw pitches for the New York Yankees. As of 2019, U.S. minority-owned businesses make up “approximately 18.7% (1.1 million) of U.S. employer businesses,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

We need to stop thinking about diversity programs in the workplace 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. “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. Of course, they were also a fountain of new ideas. The Market Development Group 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. Also in 2001, products for people with disabilities were estimated by IBM executives to “produce more than a billion dollars in revenue during the next five to ten years.” And among the constituencies IBM tracked, the gay community ranked highest in education level, computer literacy and disposable income.

The road to diversity in the workplace

On a Saturday in February, 14 schoolgirls 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 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 a red cape-clad heroine with a magic wand, Tracey Welson-Rossman, the chief marketing officer of local IT consulting firm Chariot Solutions, explained why she had brought the girls together. The only female executive employed by the roughly 65-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 said. “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. According to the UC Berkeley School of Information, women earned about 36% of computer and information science bachelor’s degrees in 1986. That number had fallen to about 21% in 2019. 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. “When you get right down to it, they are just consumers of tech, not creators of tech,” Welson-Rossman says.

Increasing diversity in tech

So she set out to capture those girls before society scared them off. In 2010 she launched the nonprofit TechGirlz, offering workshops on topics including coding, podcasting, 3D printing, programming and robotics. On weekends, holidays and occasionally after school, volunteers and industry professionals provide the instruction, using a curriculum heavy on collaboration and exploration. Students find mentors, a sense of community and a place to find 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 offer similar programs for a variety of ages. Their success challenges the notion that minorities and girls have little interest in tech. It also reveals the greater challenge facing companies like Intel. For decades, they feasted on pools of nearby talent. That 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. In the meantime, we can attack the barriers that hinder their older sisters and prevent diversity in the workplace. Carnegie Mellon, for example, revised its admission standards in the late 90s, removing some of the bias and limitations in their admissions policy. The ratio of women in its computer science program jumped to nearly 50% in 2018.

We need to find more solutions like that and scrutinize the messages we’re sending. We need to acknowledge it’s important to include women 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. 

This article appears in the October 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Chris Raymond is a contributing editor for SUCCESS magazine.