How can organizations reduce bias and support the advancement of women and people of color?
Inclusion and equity enable organizations to succeed because they reduce the barriers for talented individuals to rise. If barriers exist that limit the recruitment, retention and advancement of a diverse talent pool, then the organization is failing to achieve its potential.
What I’m after is bringing the most diverse populations inside of my organization and tapping into the brilliant minds that come from a universe of experiences that are very different depending on how you grew up, your community, your neighborhood, how you solve problems…Inclusiveness is very important to me and that means when I step into the room –yes, I may be different from everybody at the table – but I don’t have to ‘fit in’. I get to come in and be who I am and I create a different organism inside of that group dynamic for us to take performance to the next level.
– Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente
Research overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the integration of women and people of color into professional occupations benefits the profession, the organization and society as a whole. Organizations that lead the way on inclusion and equity are more innovative, more profitable, better governed, more sustainable, enjoy stronger relationships with their communities and are more equitable. In the words of former PepsiCo. CEO, Indra Nooyi, recruiting, retaining and advancing women and people of color is a “business imperative.”
Failing to prioritize inclusion and equity is costly for firms. A majority of Americans want their companies to do better when it comes to inclusion yet progress on advancing women and people of color remains uneven and stalled. Failure to prioritize inclusion and equity lowers job satisfaction and productivity, increases absenteeism, reduces work commitment and job engagement, increases turnover and puts organizations at risk of discrimination and harassment claims.
Work in support of inclusion and equity is urgent for strengthening organizations and providing a pathway for talented individuals to succeed in Utah and beyond. Inclusion is synonymous with talent, dynamism, innovation and performance. Yet research finds that most people believe that progress on inclusion happens inevitably over time, without effort, strategy and planning. The purpose of this report is to guide an intentional, comprehensive strategy toward achieving greater equity in your organization.
A Systems Approach to Bias Reduction
The data presented in this report demonstrate that gender and racial/ethnic bias is not an individual or isolated phenomenon. Workplace bias follows predictable patterns that can be observed over time (2010-2020), across space (nationally and in Utah) and across organization type (in-house, law firm and government jobs).
The systematic nature of bias requires a systematic approach. However, all too often diversity initiatives focus solely on individual-level approaches or isolated instances of bias rather than approaching the problem systemically. For example, diversity training programs are often punitive rather than preventive, implemented when there is a documented case of harassment or discrimination and intended to weed out or rehabilitate perpetrators. As a result of this “bad apple” approach, trainings often fail to reduce bias and, in some instances, even exacerbate it.
Another individual level approach commonly taken by organizations is a “fix the woman” approach, that focuses on encouraging women to be more (or less) assertive, more (or less) competitive or more (or less) ambitious. As with the “bad apple” approach, the “fix the woman” approach fails to address systemic problems within and across organizations.
Many common approaches to equity and inclusion assume that the problem of bias is individual and isolated. If biased individuals can be “fixed” then bias in the organization can be eliminated. This approach also reinforce overconfidence in our own judgment; if only “bad apples” take biased action, then those of us who are “unbiased” don’t have to worry about our everyday practices at work.
Differences are not rooted in fixed gender traits. Rather, they stem from organizational structures, company practices, and patterns of interaction that position men and women differently, creating systematically different experiences for them.
– Tinsley & Ely (2018)
By misrecognizing the systemic and implicit nature of bias, many common approaches to rooting out bias fall far short of reaching their goals. If bias is embedded in organizational practices, the solutions must also be organizational. Not surprisingly, many conventional approaches to equity and inclusion have failed to produce desired results. American companies spend billions of dollars a year on diversity trainings and hundreds of millions on diversity consulting. Yet these investments produce modest results at best.
Disrupting well-entrenched patterns of bias is difficult but vital work and requires a systems approach to bias reduction. A systems approach requires organizational rather than individual remedies. Workplaces have proven to be overwhelmingly ineffective at rewiring the human brains or “curing” individuals of their bias. However, best practices allow us to change the conditions under which decisions are made, thereby leading to better, less-biased decisions. The critical ingredients of a data-driven systems approach to bias reduction includes the following steps:
STEP 1: Leaders must communicate that bias reduction is an imperative and demonstrate that commitment through action. Effective leadership should:
- Be transparent about evidence of bias and efforts to reduce it;
- Set goals & timelines for achieving data-driven equity and inclusion outcomes at all levels;
- Hold organizational stakeholders accountable for progress on goals;
- Pursue routine and repeated efforts to identify and evaluate progress;
- Endorse ongoing efforts routinely and visibly.
STEP 2: Form a Bias Review Taskforce that includes stakeholders from across the organization. All members must be encouraged to participate on equal terms irrespective of rank or position. The purpose of the team-based approach is to:
- Evaluate systems, policies and procedures—and their outcomes and impacts—across the organization:
- Collect data on representation, recruitment, retention and advancement throughout your organization;
- Ask and answer the following questions using data: what patterns do you see? Where are your strengths? Where are your weaknesses? What problems do you have and in what units?
- Compare your organization to the available pool of candidates based on law school graduation rates and state and national availability;
- Communicate with members of underrepresented groups regarding their perceptions of the climate of the organization;
- Identify best practices for improving systems, policies and procedures;
- In collaboration with leaders, set goals and timelines and identify the lines of accountability for progress;
- Communicate successes, challenges and progress to leaders and other stakeholders.
STEP 3: Implement Best Practices throughout the organization.
- Focus separately on recruitment, hiring, retention & advancement;
- Encourage open vertical and horizontal communication and collaboration across units about progress, challenges, successes and failures;
- Evaluate progress routinely and repeatedly, including a review of mistakes and failures. Failures are inevitable – adopt a “no blame, no shame” approach that supports experimentation and reevaluation;
- Communicate progress and failures to stakeholders along with new goals and timelines for achieving success;
- Engage all personnel and units in this process and avoid segregating equity and inclusion functions in low status sections of the organization.
Achieving inclusion is a process of continual learning. View new practices and procedures like a clinical trial. Continue to tweak, rethink, redevelop and experiment with new combinations of policies to identify the most impactful practices for your organization. However, a methodical, systemic and data-driven approach always requires specific goals, timelines, measured impacts, feedback and revision.
We now turn to a review of practices known to reduce bias in hiring, retention and advancement. However, we discourage “cherry picking” approaches as there are no silver bullets when it comes to disrupting bias in work organizations. Rather, we recommend these approaches be viewed as critical tools for a systems approach to bias reduction. In each area, there are three overriding principles that should guide your design of every practice and procedure within your organization:
- OBJECTIVITY: rely only on objective, standardized information to evaluate candidates for hiring, performance and promotion.
- TRANSPARENCY: be transparent about the criteria for hiring, compensation increases and promotion and apply the same criteria to every candidate.
- ACCOUNTABILITY: ensure that decision-makers are accountable for the decisions they make – all decisions should be based on transparent and objective evidence of talent, skill and experience.
Hiring: Recruiting Talent
Inclusive recruitment and hiring practices are vital to supporting equal representation of talented professionals in your organization. Recruitment and selection must be done in a formal, objective and transparent manner.
- Advertise Widely
- Target Recruitment Efforts
- Introduce Blind Evaluations
- Practice “Status Quo” Bias
- Go with Your “Gut”
- Mistake Potential for Performance
Job advertisements must be written in gender and race neutral language and in a way that focuses solely on objective, measurable requirements and qualifications.Include criteria in the job description that signals your inclusion goals such as a diversity statement or experience working with diverse teams. Use caution when requesting application materials that may reinforce or reproduce bias in your evaluation. For example, a study of thousands of reference letters found that letters for men were longer, more likely to mention accomplishments and more likely to make a strong endorsement. By contrast, letters for women were many times more likely to mention personal life and more likely to mention effort rather than accomplishments. If you collect reference letters, discourage reviewers to rely solely or excessively on any single metric. Limit reliance on referral hiring, which tends to reinforce the status quo. Instead, be transparent about vacancies and advertise widely.
Targeted Recruitment Practices
Pro-actively place advertisements in and recruit candidates from places that target members of underrepresented groups. Targeted recruitment programs have a significant and positive effect on the representation of women and people of color – they work but many organizations do not use them as an inclusion strategy. Engage all personnel with hiring responsibilities to help your organization identify talented women and minority candidates by making law school visits and reaching out to faculty and leaders of student groups. In Utah, go the extra mile to make sure minority candidates know about valuable community resources available to them including faith groups and community organizations, ethnic grocery stores, hairdressers, etc. This signals that your organization – and your community – are inclusive places. Evidence shows that five years after implementing a targeted recruitment plan, organizations’ share of women and minority managers increases by an average of 10%. Send personal invitations to distinguished women and minority candidates encouraging them to apply.
Candidate Evaluation & Selection
Before you begin reviewing applicants, determine whether your pool reflects the gender and race of available candidates. If it does not, pause the search and continue to recruit until it does. Discuss the inclusion and equity goals of your organization openly among hiring personnel and collaboratively develop an evaluation rubric that evaluates applicants only on skills, experience and credentials outlined in the job advertisement. Apply the same evaluative criteria – and only that objective criteria – to every candidate. Dozens of experimental studies find that the resumes of women and people of color face more scrutiny, negative evaluation and critique than those of White men. Women of color, in particular, face a greater burden of doubt even when they have the same experience, credentials and qualifications as other candidates. When and where possible, institute blind evaluation processes. Blind hiring includes any strategy that “blinds” evaluators to information that can lead to bias in the screening and evaluation of candidates. When possible, blind applicant characteristics that are not relevant to the position, including gender, race/ethnicity and parental status. Stress, time pressure and ambiguity increase bias in candidate evaluations – seek to minimize these for evaluators.
As you design inclusive hiring practices, beware of three common shortcuts that can increase the role of bias in your organization.
BIAS RISK #1- Homosocial or “Status Quo” Bias
Most of us tend to feel more comfortable with people who look, think and act like us. In hiring decisions, this means that many of us tend to unconsciously prefer candidates who are similar to us in terms of gender, social class, race/ethnicity and cultural background. In White and male-dominated professions, this means that women and people of color face a burden of doubt with regard to their competence, “fitness” and capability. If your hiring process relies solely on objective criteria and if evaluators are accountable for evaluating candidates based on those criteria, then you can reduce the tendency for evaluators to advocate for candidates who are socially similar them, thus disrupting the tendency to default to the status quo.
BIAS RISK #2 - Defaulting to “Fit” or Going with Your “Gut”
All too often evaluators default to a vague sense of “fit” when evaluating candidates. This often means that candidates who do not look like or share the same background of current incumbents are deemed a poor fit for the organization. This default is exacerbated by our tendency to misrecognize the skills and qualifications necessary to be successful. We often conflate the characteristics typical of a profession as characteristics necessary to the profession. In doing so, we reinforce stereotypes that view underrepresented members of the profession, including women and people of color, as a bad fit and/or lacking the qualities necessary to be successful. A vague sense of “fitness” or “gut feelings” are not objective criteria and should never be used to evaluate, screen or select candidates.
BIAS RISK #3 - Misclassifying “Potential” as “Performance”
Research suggests that men and women are often evaluated on different criteria. Men are often evaluated based on their potential while women are often evaluated based on demonstrated performance. Men’s qualifications are also given less scrutiny than women’s and gaps or shortcomings in men’s records tend to be overlooked or dismissed, while shortcomings in women’s trajectory tend to be amplified and exaggerated. One experimental study presented evaluators with identical resumes – only the gender of the names varied. Evaluators identified the “man’s” resume as more competitive, more accomplished and more hirable than the “woman’s” resume. In fact, evaluators questioned “women’s” accomplishments and raised doubts about their abilities. Additional research finds that evaluators tend assume that men but not women candidates have leadership potential and aspirations.
Retention: Keeping the Talent You Have
As you pursue inclusive recruitment practices, ensure your organization is prepared to retain women and people of color. Nationally, women and minorities have much lower retention rates than White men, which harms the careers of talented lawyers and bestows high reputational and material costs on organizations.
- Practice Inclusive Networking
- Evaluate Objectively
- Support Working Parents
- Focus on Style Over Substance
- Assume Mothers aren’t Committed
- Distance from Women Colleagues
All employees must have the support and resources they need to succeed. This includes access to high-quality mentoring relationships with men and women colleagues and access to social networking opportunities that can advance their careers. Research finds that women are often excluded from professional networks and mentoring and as a result lose out on information about professional opportunities, clients and contacts, and collaboration and support from colleagues. Formal mentoring programs are effective and result in significant gains in the representation of women and minorities in leadership and supervisory roles. In organizations that have no women or people of color in leadership, mentors should consider the impact of those gaps on the climate and perception of women and minority employees and adopt their mentoring accordingly. Mentors and other leaders should be visible and vocal in their support for equity and inclusion and should be transparent with mentees about specific actions the organization is taking to reduce gaps in representation.
Performance Evaluations & Work Assignments
Criteria for evaluating the performance of employees and assigning case work must be objective, standardized and transparent so that all employees know how to succeed in your organization. Evaluators must be accountable for limiting the impact of bias on evaluations. Performance evaluations and assignments should be motivational rather than punitive. All employees must know the evaluative criteria for their position and must be held to the same standards of evaluation. The goal is to provide meaningful, constructive feedback and to develop, in tandem with employees, a pathway to success. Accountability for evaluators can be a powerful tool of change. Research finds that when evaluations are transparent and decision-makers are accountable, bias in evaluations is significant reduced or eliminated. Practice these same strategies for allocating high quality assignments. Whenever possible, seek to increase cross-group contact, integration and collaboration, which can reduce bias among and between members of your teams. And ensure that your teams are balanced in terms of gender and racial/ethnic representation.
Support for Working Parents: Paid Leave & Flexible Work Arrangements
Our interviews revealed myriad ways flexible work arrangements supported women’s careers. Many women—including judges, law firm partners, in-house counsel and solo practitioners—have benefited from flexibility while the careers of many others were stalled or otherwise harmed by the absence of such supports. But supportive family policies and flexibility are not just important for women. A study of Harvard business school graduates found that men and women professionals were equally likely to desire a better balance between their work and family lives. This means that policies that make work more manageable for everyone will increase retention, productivity and commitment of all workers. Make flexibility and work-life balance a core value of your organization and encourage everyone to take advantage of supportive policies. Research finds that flexible work arrangements reduce work-life conflict, improve worker health, and increase work commitment, productivity and job performance for all workers. And when everybody uses flexible arrangements then negative stereotypes about mothers are reduced. Your organization should adopt gender-blind leave and work arrangement policies and men and women should be incentivized to participate in these opportunities.
As you design inclusive retention practices, beware of three common shortcuts that are likely to increase the role of bias in your organization.
BIAS RISK #1:- Focusing on Style Over Substance
Research on performance evaluations shows that the vast majority of women – but only a very small percentage of men – receive critical feedback on their style, including their communication or speaking style or their interpersonal “manner.” In fact, a recently study found that 66% of women receive negative feedback about their speaking “style” compared to only 1% of men. This pattern contributes to the tendency to hold equal performers to different standards when it comes to evaluating work performance. Furthermore, women and people of color are often penalized in performance evaluations for championing diversity and equity efforts. Such “agency backlash” harms the careers of women and minorities and discourages efforts that support inclusion and equity. All workers should be encouraged and rewarded for championing equity and inclusion policies that aim to strengthen the organization.
BIAS RISK #2: - Assuming Mothers Aren’t Qualified, Competent & Committed
There exist many myths about mothers’ commitment to their careers. Research debunks these myths with evidence. One study of pro-work behaviors found that mothers are equal to or superior to other workers on all measures including work commitment and work intensity. While mothers do not differ significantly from non-mothers in terms of professional commitment and competence, what does differ is the treatment of mothers and fathers in professional jobs. Mothers are often given less challenging assignments or expected to downgrade their careers. Fathers, on the other hand, are rarely encouraged to reduce hours or travel in order to dedicate more time to family care. Perhaps most important, research finds that career decisions that accommodate family responsibilities does not explain gender differences in career achievement. Mothers and fathers should be treated equally and provided with the same opportunities for work-life balance and advancement. Rid your organization of “mommy track” jobs and the stereotypes and assumptions that accompany these jobs. And never, ever assume what mothers want (or don’t want) out of their careers. When in doubt, ask them.
BIAS RISK #3 - Distancing from Women Colleagues (is Not an Option)
Nearly every interviewee mentioned that she has been denied access to mentoring, high-status assignments and/or network opportunities because men colleagues or superiors refused to be alone, travel with and/or work closely with them. For political or religious reasons, many men avoid one-on-one contact with women colleagues in order to limit behavior that can be perceived as romantic or sexual in nature. In practice, this means that women lawyers are denied equal opportunities to advance their careers and are subject to isolation and exclusion relative to their men peers. By denying women these opportunities, their men colleagues are signaling that they are not equals and/or that they are primarily sexual objects rather than colleagues. Because senior ranks are dominated by men, this practice is self-reinforcing; by limiting women’s ability to benefit from informal network ties and mentoring, women’s ability to reach senior ranks is limited. While this type of distancing is made by individual men, it harms women’s careers in a systematic way. Organizations committed to inclusion should adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward these harmful practices and prioritize advancing more women into senior positions so as to normalize the presence of women in all arenas of professional interaction and engagement.
Advancement: Promoting Talented Leaders
By retaining talented women and people of color, you are creating a pipeline of talented leaders over time. Organizations with women and people of color in leadership are stronger and more effective. A diverse group of decision-makers is also more likely to recruit, hire and promote talented women and people of color. Women and people of color in leadership serve as visible examples that your organization supports and enables the careers of everyone.
- Sponsor & Mentor Women
- Introduce Fair Compensation
- Advance Women
- Create Impossible Hoops
- “Think Manager/Think Male”
- Accept Tokenism
High Quality Sponsorship & Mentorship
Mentorship and sponsorship are essential for the careers of women and people of color. Mentors are available for advice and general guidance, while sponsors actively promote women’s careers by advocating for their promotions, raises and high-profile assignments. Our respondents discussed the vital role that men and women mentors and sponsors had played in supporting their careers. Yet research finds that women tend to receive less frequent and less valuable feedback than men. This means that they have less information and support to propel their careers. While mentorship and sponsorship are important for women’s careers, these programs and initiatives should not be viewed as remedial. An analysis of over two hundred studies found that there are no significant differences in men and women’s confidence or leadership potential. What does differ, however, are the opportunities and supports men and women receive at work – and strong mentors and sponsors can help address these gaps.
Bonuses & Compensation
The gender compensation gap in law is substantial. Women lawyers working full time earn approximately 85% of men’s earnings and women partners in top law firms face a pay gap of over 50%. One common myth suggests that women earn less because they fail to negotiate as aggressively as men. Yet a review of over one hundred studies on this topic concludes that gender differences in negotiations are small to non-existent. Research on compensation among lawyers at the national level concludes that experience, credentials or work history cannot account for the gender wage gap. The good news is that by implementing standardized and transparent processes for determining compensation and making managers and supervisors accountable for compensation outcomes, organizations can reduce or eliminate wage gaps. Accountability and transparency are the key ingredients here. A recent experimental study focused on a persistent racial gap in bonuses between Black and White executives at a large company. The researchers made performance ratings, raises and bonuses transparent to everyone in the firm and the racial disparity disappeared. Empirically monitor salaries, bonuses and other forms of compensation over time to ensure that gaps do not exist and do not emerge and grow over time. Also ensure that women and minorities are well-represented on compensations committees as their contributions are associated with a significant reduction of pay disparities.
Perhaps the most important way to support inclusion and equity in your organization is to prioritize integrating your leadership ranks by gender, race and ethnicity. Visible, competent women and minority leaders transform their organizations. Leadership integration is associated with lower rates of discrimination and harassment, less pay inequity, greater opportunities for other women and minorities and higher rates of retention. Despite overwhelming evidence that leadership diversity strengthens organizations, leadership recruitment and appointment tend to be the least formal, objective and transparent process within work organizations. Commit to changing this – make sure that the search for and appointment of leaders is as rigorous and unbiased as all other practices within your organization. If you are not current and actively supporting the leadership trajectories of talented women and people of color in your organization, begin today. Also develop a short, medium and long-term plan to actively recruit talented individuals from outside the organization at every level. If you are hiring for a leadership position and there are no women or minority candidates in your pool, stop evaluating candidates and return to active recruitment. Build bridges between your organization and organizations that foster the careers of women and people of color so as to build a reputation as an inclusive organization. Experiment with policies like the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires a diverse slate of candidates for all senior positions. When there are talented women and people of color in your hiring pool, they will get hired and promoted and your organization will be stronger as a result.
As you design inclusive advancement practices, beware of three common shortcuts that are likely to increase the role of bias in your organization.
BIAS RISK #1 - Creating an Impossible Bar
As with performance evaluations, research finds that women are held to exceptional standards when it comes to leadership style. Their underrepresentation increases their visibility, which requires them to walk a tightrope of impression management. Women leaders must be seen as confident, ambitious and competitive as well as likeable and warm—a near impossible task. In fact, a recent study found that successful women in male-dominated professions—simply by virtue of their visibility and success—are viewed as “difficult to work with” and “unfriendly.” Limiting the token status of women and minority leaders will reduce these biases. In the meantime, make sure you only consider objective information when evaluating leaders and that everyone is accountable for eliminating these pervasive biases.
BIAS RISK #2 - Think Manager/Think (White) Man
As noted above, we tend to misrecognize the skills and qualifications necessary for leadership with the characteristics typical of leaders. If all or most of our leaders are White men, we tend to assume that only White men have the skills and characteristics necessary for effective leadership. White men do not have a monopoly on talent and should not have a monopoly on opportunity. Another bias pitfall leads us to assume that women or people of color are better suited than others to lead during a crisis. Research finds that women and people of color are more likely to be appointed to leadership positions when a unit, team or organization is in crisis – a phenomenon termed “the glass cliff.” Under these conditions, women and minority leaders are often set up to fail, given responsibility over a crisis that was not of their making and blamed if they are unable to fix the crisis in a short period of time. Avoid this by relying only on objective criteria to evaluate candidates for leadership roles and holding decision-makers accountable for all appointment decisions.
BIAS RISK #3 - Tokenism: “One and Done” or “Two-kenism”
Many organizations are guilty of pursuing a “one and done” or a “two-kenism” approach to inclusion in leadership—appointing one or at most two women or people of color and considering the job complete. This approach is problematic because it places non-traditional leaders in highly visible token positions. Token status – the experience of being one of the only members of your group in a position – heightens stereotypes, increases visibility and intensifies performance pressures. Under these conditions, non-traditional leaders are often unable to perform to their full potential. The hyper visibility they experience can lead to a “failure prevention” mindset where they become cautious, careful and conservative so as to avoid mistakes. This is a sound strategy because token status also exaggerates or amplifies mistakes. When women—and particularly women of color—make mistakes, they are viewed as less competent and capable than men who make the same mistakes. If your leadership team is unbalanced by gender or race/ethnicity, prioritize advancing talented women and minorities. In the meantime, implement decision-making by unanimous versus majority rule so as to maximize the influence and participation of underrepresented members of your leadership team.