The Real Problem: Systemic Bias

by Julie Graber | on 29 Aug 2019

Implicit or unconscious bias has gotten a great deal of attention in the diversity and inclusion circles over the past couple of years. The good news is that we recognize now that it exists, and that it has contributed to the ongoing challenge of getting more women and people of color into leadership positions.

The jury is still out, though, as to whether or not training is the way to fix the problem. Some research calls into question the effectiveness of implicit bias training, especially as it is implemented in many organizations in the form of one-time workshops and discussions. (Does Unconscious Bias Training Really Work?; Why Diversity Programs Fail; But really, is implicit bias training effective or ineffective?)

There is a bias, however, that we can do something about. That bias is systemic bias.

Systemic bias is the bias that’s built into our systems - our organizational culture and business practices - systems that have developed and evolved over long periods of time. In most organizations, these are systems that have been built around what works the typical employee, which for many, many years, has been straight, white, married men.

Companies need to take apart the systems that are used to hire, promote, and reward employees and put them back together in ways that work for both men and women. That takes a commitment that goes beyond the superficial changes most organizations are willing to make.

And before you think that’s too big a task to take on, consider this example from GoDaddy.

Like many companies, promotions at GoDaddy were handled on an “ad hoc” basis - it was left to the individual to express interest in these opportunities, and for a variety of reasons, the individuals most likely to express interest were men.

To address this, GoDaddy asked managers to consider all employees as potential candidates - not just the ones that ask.

Promotions for women jumped 30% in a single year.

At GoDaddy, they changed the system for deciding promotions and the promotion rate for women jumped 30%.

Was it more work? Did it take longer than before? The answer to both is probably “yes”. But it also, in all likelihood, resulted in better promotion decisions, ones that will benefit the company as those women advance through the leadership pipeline. (And let’s be clear, there were probably men who don’t fit the stereotype who benefitted as well).

How do you identify systemic bias? In some respects, finding it is the easy part. It is much harder to suck it up and admit that your current ways of operating give men the advantage and hold women back. And the answer is to change the system - not fix the women.

GoDaddy’s “ad hoc” process for handling promotions is a good example that will sound familiar to many organizations - it’s a pretty common business practice for promotions to go to those who ask. Salary negotiations is another that I’ve written about previously - it doesn’t help to teach women to negotiate - what we need to do is change the system and stop negotiating salaries.

Yeah, right.

Like I said, not so easy.

I’ll tackle more examples in a follow-up post. Have a good Labor Day!

Tags:  Bias