Every year, company leaders spend millions of dollars on unconscious bias (UB) training in hopes of fostering a more diverse and inclusive work culture. But, studies show that UB training does not always change biased behavior. In fact, it can sometimes make the prevalence of workplace discrimination worse. According to a 2006 review of more than 700 companies, researchers found that after UB training, the likelihood that Black workers would advance in an organization often decreased.

So what is it about unconscious bias that leaders are getting wrong? And is it really possible to root out unintended prejudice at work? In a conversation with Chief Members, journalist Jessica Nordell, author of The End of Bias, explains why leaders need to do more than just raise awareness about the issue. But rather, executives need to also self-examine how their own levels of unintended bias play out in an organization, and they need to offer concrete steps for how workers at all levels can display changed behavior.

"I often hear from people, 'Well, this is a problem for other people, but it's not really a problem for me,'" says Nordell. "What I have found through my own research as a woman, very humbly, is that I too am capable of expressing even sexist assumptions and stereotypes towards others. We all have absorbed these ideas from culture. So becoming aware of our own ability to express bias is an important first step."

Additionally, Nordell says it's critical to understand just how easy it is for these patterns to impact company culture. To prove this, she created a computer simulation of a workplace in which men and women were given projects to complete and depending on whether they passed or failed the project they would be promoted to the next level. Throughout the process, Nordell and her team implemented common biases women face at work like being penalized for failures more than men, being evaluated based on past performance versus potential, or being criticized for not acting in stereotypical feminine ways. After incremental introductions of bias in the experiment, Nordell saw that following 10 years of promotion cycles, the top level of the simulated workplace was 87% men, signaling how discrimination, even when unintentional, can be detrimental to women's careers.

"As we become more familiar with these patterns, we can see them more clearly and we can begin to root them out more directly and more aggressively," adds Nordell.

For leaders looking to create less biased workplaces, she points to French law firm Taj as a perfect example of what should be done. Nordell explains that in 2004 lawyer Gianmarco Monsellato became CEO of the company and was tasked with turning the organization around. After noticing how one woman who took maternity leave was passed over for a promotion he started to dig deeper into other unfair practices at the company and he began to scrutinize five areas where bias could take place.

1. Promotions: He ensured that every promotion was based on an objective criteria that was transparent to everyone rather than an ambiguous and shifting benchmark. If there were a situation where a promotion was uneven between a man and a woman, then the manager had to explain. And if Monsellato found the answer to be insufficient, then the whole promotion process was canceled.

2. Pay: If there were an example of unequal pay between two individuals, then the manager had to explain it or correct it. "He said if there was an explanation it was always BS, so the [manager] always ended up correcting the disparity," says Nordell.

3. Culture: He immediately started to check any sexist or insensitive remarks he heard by personally pulling people to the side and letting them know that their commentary was unacceptable at work.

4. Stretch assignments: He made sure that everyone had equal access to opportunities that would allow them to grow by ensuring that special projects were not assigned out based on favoritism.

5. Promotion Risks: "He found that some of the women in the organization worried that if they ascended to a leadership position they might lose some of their technical expertise as lawyers," says Nordell. "And then if that leadership position didn't work out, they would be out of luck because their skills would have started to atrophy." In response, Monsellato created a new policy where anyone who was promoted to a new role could return to their previous job after six months if they discovered they didn't like it.

As a result of his changes, Nordell says 50% of women now make up equity partners at Taj, compared to 20% at U.S. law firms.

"I think what's really important here, and it's something that Monsellato really emphasized, is that none of these changes were focused on changing women. They were all focused on changing the biases and the culture," says Nordell.

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