Battling bias in the workplace—must be ‘ongoing effort,’ says Pitt professor

AUDREY MURRELL, PhD, left, speaks on the importance for companies to eliminate implicit bias in the workplace, during Vibrant Pittsburgh’s Regional Economic Inclusion Summit, Sept. 17. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

During one of the workshops at Vibrant Pittsburgh’s well-attended Regional Economic Inclusion Summit at the Westin Convention Center Hotel, Sept. 17, the 90 or so who attended were handed an optical illusion depicting two tables seen from different angles and asked if they were the same. They didn’t look the same, but if you measured them, they were.
It’s a blind spot, like unconscious bias. You just can’t see it—but you can measure it. That is why panelists Audrey Murrell, PhD, professor and associate dean at the University of Pittsburgh School of Business and Alicia Moody, HR talent/digital development project manager at ThermoFisher Scientific, agreed with moderator and Alcoa inclusion diversity and employee experience leader Lori McAdoo that successful institution-level diversity programs must be data-driven.
Bias, Murrell said, grows from mental shortcuts we all take to process information quickly and act on it.
ALICIA MOODY, HR talent/digital development project manager at ThermoFisher Scientific, says that diversity on product development or sales teams can be critical in a global market. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“It’s useful. But when applied to people, it can lead to a host of errors due to embedded assumptions and can influence job evaluations, promotions, etc.,” she said. “Shortcuts aren’t all bad. The problem is when they impede others’ growth.”
To combat it at the institutional level, to change the culture, she said, requires multiple interwoven and multi-layered approaches.
“The Starbucks ‘shut down for a day to do training’ isn’t enough,” she said. “It has to be an ongoing effort. What’s being done to develop a culture of dignity and respect? How are decisions made on hiring and promotions? And there has to be accountability. I had one executive I consulted with fire his whole leadership team because he said it was that important.”
Moody said her CEO has made sure diversity and inclusion are embedded in all the company’s training, because diversity of thought and abilities are critical to competing in a global economy. She also noted that when working in China for a time, she ran into cultural biases against women who had children working—the unconscious implication was that she was a bad mother. It’s the kind of thing she said employees can address at the personal level.
“You can say to someone, you are making assumptions about me that are not correct. Please don’t do that,” she said. “The response is typically, ‘Oh I didn’t mean that,’ followed by an apology. If I can do that so the next person doesn’t have to experience it—that has value.”
On a larger scale, Moody said diversity on product development or sales teams can be critical in a global market.
“Who’s looking at my product? You need diversity to see what you can’t see,” she said. “Different lifestyles, cultures—they could make a groundbreaking difference.”
In response to a question from the audience, the panelists also agreed there is another kind of bias at play regionally against trade-type jobs, which all acknowledged are in increasing demand.
“These are jobs that will support the region, support families and communities,” Murrell said. “These jobs built this region. There are people talking about these positions—we need more attention paid to them.”
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