We All Carry Them

Unconscious Bias and Strategies for SuccessDo you assume your elderly neighbor is not computer-savvy?  Do you assume your Millennial co-worker is a slacker?  Do you clutch your purse or briefcase closer when someone of another racial or ethnic group sits across from you on the train or bus?

Guess what— we all carry around a variety of unconscious biases that cause us to make unfair assumptions about others, according to Dr. Margo Monteith of Purdue University.  I had the pleasure of attending an interactive and innovative event this week, Understanding and Managing Unconscious Bias:  Strategies for Success, sponsored by the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, The Indian-American Bar Association of Chicago, The Decalogue Society of Lawyers, and the CBA’s Alliance for Women and Committee on Ethnic and Racial Diversity.  It was an eye-opening presentation for the standing-room-only crowd.

Dr. Monteith led the audience through a series of well-designed timed exercises that made us gasp, as our subconscious beliefs slowed down our processing time on simple tasks.  She followed up with a summary of her research on implicit (unconscious) intergroup biases, the conditions under which they are activated, and influence our responses, and how they can be controlled and changed.  It turns out that, as humans, we are “hardwired” to make categorizations based on our own “ingroup”—then societal forces often reinforce those categorizations, leading to numerous biases of which we never become consciously aware.

The panelists, Sally Olson, Chief Diversity Officer of Sidley Austin LLP, Aurora Abella-Austriaco, Of Counsel at Clark Hill and President of the Chicago Bar Association, and Prabha Parameswaran, Associate General Counsel of the Business Operations Unit of the Legal Group of US Foods, each shared stories from their lives and careers in which they were affected by the unconscious biases of others.  This led to a lively discussion with the audience about the implications of implicit bias on recruiting and retention of women and minority attorneys, intergenerational relations within law firms, and balancing intuition against our unconscious biases.

A few take-aways:

  1. We all have unconscious biases relating to age, gender, race and ethnicity, and though they can be hard to admit to, their existence can’t be denied. These biases distort reality—both our perceptions of others, and theirs of us.
  2. According to Dr. Monteith, it is possible to reduce their impact through various strategies:

a. Self-regulationIn a nutshell, think before you talk or act.  Might unconscious biases be influencing your reaction?  Is there a different way of looking at the situation?  Retrospection and reflection can help you avoid an inappropriate response.

b. Counter-stereotyping.  In other words, practice, practice, practice.  You can reduce the impact of your implicit bias by consciously and repeatedly activating the opposite of the stereotype.  Assume your Boomer friends and co-workers are technologically adept, at least unless or until they tell you otherwise.  Assume your Millennial co-worker will strive for that next promotion.

c. Self-Linking.  We all tend toward implicit favoritism of those in our own “ingroup.”  If you strive to include everyone in your “ingroup,” you can reduce the negative impact of implicit bias.  Consider integrating the following Buddha quote into your everyday interactions:  “He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye.”

3.  Just like breaking any other habitual behavior, counteracting unconscious bias takes self-awareness, conscious effort and constant vigilance.

Thanks to the sponsors, hosts, panelists and audience for a thought-provoking presentation!

Katherine Erwin

Katherine Erwin

As the Commission's Special Projects Director, Katherine managed the statewide attorney mentoring program and other special projects. She practiced law in Chicago for 20 years. Then she founded the Chicago office of a legal placement agency, and placed highly credentialed attorneys in law firms, corporate legal departments and governmental agencies. Most recently, Kathy served in the Career Services Office of the University of Chicago Law School. A graduate of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and the University of Michigan Law School, she lives in Lincoln Park with her husband and daughter.

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Katherine Erwin

Katherine Erwin

As the Commission's Special Projects Director, Katherine managed the statewide attorney mentoring program and other special projects. She practiced law in Chicago for 20 years. Then she founded the Chicago office of a legal placement agency, and placed highly credentialed attorneys in law firms, corporate legal departments and governmental agencies. Most recently, Kathy served in the Career Services Office of the University of Chicago Law School. A graduate of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and the University of Michigan Law School, she lives in Lincoln Park with her husband and daughter.

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