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Stanford alumni attend Clayman workshop on Minimizing Bias during Homecoming Reunion

Nov 15 2014

The day that I was first exposed to the concept of unconscious bias was back in fourth grade. My middle school took a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, as part of our History curriculum on learning about the Holocaust. Before entering the museum, we were presented with two doors: one labeled, “Unprejudiced,” and the doors labeled, “Prejudiced.” As nine-year olds who had just spent months learning about the atrocities of the Holocaust, we all rushed to proudly enter the museum through the “Unprejudiced” doors. But those doors did not budge. “Think,” we were told by the museum docents, “Now use the other door.” We quickly realized the profound lesson we were being taught: no one is free of bias, regardless of how well-intentioned or well-informed anyone believes themselves to be. Humiliated yet humbled, we all entered the museum through the doors labeled, “Prejudiced.

Decades later, the issue of unconscious bias has more importance than ever before. Despite hopeful progress for women in the 1970s and 1980s, women today remain vastly underrepresented at the top level of every aspect of our society. “This is, of course, bad for women, but it’s bad for society at large,” said Shelley Correll, Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. In conjunction with a welcome reception for distinguished alumni and guests of the community during the 2014-15 Alumni Homecoming Weekend, the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research held “Classes Without Quizzes” presented by the Institute’s leaders, Andrea Davies, Lori Mackenzie, and Shelley Correll.

Unconscious bias: “an error in decision-making”

Highlighting the institute’s current agenda of “moving beyond the stalled revolution,” the session opened with the ambitious question, “what can we do to jumpstart the gender revolution’s stalled progress on furthering gender equality, right now in 2014?” Honing in on one critical piece of the complex puzzle, Clayman Institute director, Correll offered two main strategies: (1) Understanding how gender stereotypes continue to hold women back and (2) Educating individuals and organizations to realize that these biases can actually be reduced or eliminated.

First, what exactly is “bias”? According to the way businesses and social psychologists use the term, Correll explains that simply put, “bias is an error is decision-making.” Take, for example, the famous example of orchestra auditions. In the 1970s, women made up only 5 percent of top symphony orchestras. However, after orchestras employed a new audition policy to use “blind auditions” where auditionees played behind a screen to conceal their gender, orchestras saw a full 50 percent increase in women hires.

A key point here is that orchestras and managers are always trying to hire the best talent possible. However, even with the best of intentions to hire the highest quality of talent, biases creep in and often play big roles in decision-making processes. “This is a no blame, high responsibility message,” explains Correll. No one is blaming the well-intentioned, but strategies to eliminate these biases are essential to moving beyond the stalled gender revolution. What then, do such strategies look like?

“Language of Leadership”

The good news is that “once we see our own biases at play, we can’t unsee them,” according to Lori Mackenzie, Executive Director of the Clayman Institute. In other words, once we recognize our own biases, we can begin to self-monitor our language and behaviors to proactively counteract our biases. A powerful example of a bias-countering strategy is to master the “language of leadership” when we describe others’ behaviors and attributes. Often, we unconsciously describe women with communal traits: “Team player, friendly, good relationship manager, committed,“ while we use agentic language in describing men, “Big thinker, influences others, takes risks, independent.” Although these are all positive attributes, the unfortunate reality is that when individuals are perceived as communal, they are automatically seen as less agentic. Thus, as we unconsciously accredit men with agentic traits and women with communal ones, we perpetuate our cultural beliefs that men – who are agentic – are the natural leaders. “How often do you describe your sons and daughters with different language styles,” Mackenzie asks, “…we can make these changes in our everyday communications.”

Advancing gender equality

The Classes Without Quizzes ended with a discussion on some of the specific communication techniques that can be used to influence everyday interactions that foster gender equality.

  • Master the language of leadership in your communications, evaluations, bios, and introductions
  • Influence the language others use when describing colleagues, friends and family members
  • Team up with people to acknowledge the leadership and communal accomplishments of women and men

The response to the presentation was well received. Many alumni asked, "How can we receive this presentation? We want everyone we work with to hear this!" The Institute’s workshops on minimizing bias, support its ongoing mission to seek and understand new issues on gender that weren’t being looked at previously with a research lens in order to find new solutions and interventions. Reflecting back with the alumni on the Institute’s history, Andrea Rees Davies, Associate Director of the Institute, shared how the Institute has continued to evolve on Stanford’s campus over the last four decades. When the institute was established in 1974 as the “Center for the Research on Women,” it was one of the first centers of its type to exist across the nation. Ironically, in its early years, the Center’s funding by the university was based on one important condition, “We are going to take away the funding after we achieve gender equality.” Forty years later, the Institute is still committed to achieving this vision as a thought-leader on gender research around the world.  Despite the many changes the institute has undergone since its founding, its mission has remained the same, “To articulate and address challenges, that are not only central to women, but also to society at as a whole…We all believe that the institute’s mission to advancing research, empowering our students and sharing knowledge will change culture, and promote a more equal society.” 

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.