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Bias Among the Well-Intentioned

Ann Mellow, Associate Director
December 10, 2014

HiringFrom 2007-2008, I was director of the Faculty Diversity Search, a consortium of over twenty New York City independent schools that recruits candidates of color. Although many FDS candidates were hired each year, there was always a significant number of equally strong candidates who were not offered positions, even as school leaders bemoaned the fact that their faculties remained far too racially homogeneous.

Why this disconnect between intention and result? It’s a question many Episcopal and independent school leaders have wrangled with for years.

I am increasingly convinced that the answers have less to do with the candidate pool than with those of us doing the hiring.

There is a relatively new but growing body of fascinating literature about unconscious or implicit bias: the tendency of social biases and stereotypes to inform our attitudes and actions, even though we consciously assert that we are bias-free.

An additional irony, of course, is that studies also demonstrate that heterogeneous groups (those composed a people with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives) are more effective and make better decisions than homogeneous groups (those composed of people who are more alike than different).

And so its seems that we get caught in a vicious cycle: unconscious biases keep those in positions of authority from putting together the very strongest groups, which in turn perpetuates relatively homogeneous hiring teams, which in turn holds us back from making different, and better, decisions. And so it goes and so it goes. And we can't figure out what's not working.

As diversity practitioner and Biennial Conference 2015 featured speaker Dr. Steven Jones lovingly but firmly points out: “good intentions are not a strategy.”

So how can we do better? Here are some thought-provoking resources:

Everyone is Biased: Harvard Professor’s Work Reveals We Barely Know Our Own Minds from boston.com summarizes research on "implicit bias."

Innovation, Diversity, and Market Growth from The Center for Talent Innovation offers compelling research from the corporate sector that makes a powerful case for both innate and acquired diversity at all levels of organizations.

Rethink What You Know About High-Achieving Women from Harvard Business Review compares the career trajectories of male and female Harvard Business School graduates and breaks apart the "mommy track" myth.

Bias Among the Well-Intentioned: How It Can Affect the Hiring Process from Independent School Magazine, Winter 2010, offers case studies that get at some of the prevalent biases in well-intentioned independent school hiring decisions, followed by concrete ways to avoid them. Excellent for discussion by hiring teams.

What White Children Need to Know About Race from Independent School Magazine, Summer 2014, summarizes research on how white parents talk (or don’t talk) to children about race and how that affects their children’s assumptions and attitudes.

When Talking About Bias Backfires by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant explores how the way we talk about bias can affect whether behaviors actually change.

Shielding Children From Talk of Ferguson and Garner from The New York Times, in which a Times journalist and African-American mom shares her concerns and conversation when her young son asks her, “Can police be arrested?”

Anglicanism embodies the notion that many voices and perspectives are needed to come closer to truth. For Episcopal schools, insuring that there are many voices and perspectives in our community—including on our faculties and administrations—speaks to the very heart of our mission. In the end, it is only through the acknowledgement of some uncomfortable truths, spoken by voices other than our own, that we grow in knowledge and wisdom and change ourselves and the world for better. Surely this is what Jesus did and what we, too, are called to do.

1 Comment

  1. 1 arvind s grover 18 Dec

    Ann, as usual, sage and timely advice. As many of us venture into hiring season, it makes all the sense to stop, and ensure that our hiring systems are equipped with methods for success. At Grace Church School in NYC some of our practical tools include:

    1. Commitment to finding at least one finalist of color for every position. Not one candidate, but one finalist. We keep searching until we get there.

    2. Using a wide network of recruiting sources, included those dedicated particularly to people of color, but also those targeted to LGBTQ applicants.

    3. Requiring Undoing Racism training for all new faculty and staff hires.

    4. Having a diverse hiring team (gender, race, age, tenure, etc) for each position. I often call this having diverse biases in the room.

    5. Requiring hiring team members to fill out evaluation forms without first discussing candidates with each other.

    6. Providing each hiring team member with a list of appropriate and inappropriatequestions, as well as articles regarding hiring bias. Naming it is key.

    These have been some of our most important methods in our work, and we continue to challenge and hone the system. 

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