A man and his son are in a terrible car accident. The father dies, and the son is rushed to the emergency room in critical condition. In the operating room, the surgeon looks at the boy and exclaims, “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son!” How can this be?
If it took you a moment to realize that the surgeon is the boy’s mother, you’re in good company. One reason many people struggle with this riddle is because we rely on an implicit, or unconscious, assumption that certain fields (like STEM) and certain roles (like surgeon) are better suited to men than women. Even though most people don’t want to be biased, we all have unconscious preferences for certain groups. Because biases can be socialized, sometimes we even have biases against groups that we’re members of. For example, women are just as likely as men to show bias against women.
Even though we’re not aware of them, these biases shape our preferences, perceptions, and behaviors. At work, they can lead us to underestimate, devalue, or overlook the contributions of those we’re biased against. As a result, biases can influence who is recognized, who is offered opportunities for development, whose ideas are adopted, and ultimately, who is successful. Biases contribute to the imbalances commonly seen across organizations, with women and minorities being under-represented, particularly in leadership.
The end result is bad for employees and businesses alike. For employees, working in an unfair environment can cause resignation, resentment, and apathy. Meanwhile, businesses miss out on talent, fail to take advantage of the benefits of diversity, and as a result, stifle performance and innovation. These are some of the reasons why, today, large companies are paying more attention to unconscious biases than ever before. Many large companies, like Google, Microsoft, Dow Chemical Co., Pfizer, Royal Bank of Canada, and Pricewaterhouse Cooper, have begun offering unconscious bias trainings over the last few years. And this isn’t a coincidence, it’s a growing trend: of large US employers with diversity programs, 20% now offer unconscious bias training, up from just 2% five years ago, and reports indicate they are among the most commonly requested trainings for 2015.
The increased focus on understanding and correcting for the role of bias in large companies certainly represents a meaningful, positive change. However, large companies aren’t the only ones that should be paying attention to these issues. As we learned while preparing a bias workshop at Medallia, the same imbalances (and the unconscious biases that contribute to them) exist within companies of all sizes. In fact, there are a number of reasons why it can be even more valuable to tackle this issue while a company is small. Here are four reasons why it can be valuable to focus on unconscious bias as a small company:
Part of preparing an unconscious bias training is understanding the current state of your business when it comes to the representation of women and underrepresented minorities across all levels of your organization. Many smaller, privately held companies do not report these statistics, and they may not be tracking them, either. In taking the time to measure across your business, what you learn will be very valuable: perhaps your small company looks surprisingly similar to many much larger companies; perhaps there are specific groups within the business that are lacking in diversity. Before you can take action for change, you need to know where to direct your efforts.
The larger a company is, the more challenging it is to make meaningful gains in diversity. For example, Google’s Director of Global Diversity Talent & Inclusion, Yolanda Mangolini, spoke at a recent forum on diversity in tech about how incredibly difficult it is to impact diversity by even 1% at a company Google’s size. Paying attention early on means imbalances in diversity will exist on a much smaller, more manageable scale.
On a deeper level, addressing unconscious biases at work means making changes: changes to the ways we communicate, organize spaces, recruit talent, develop employees, structure performances reviews, and manage promotions and transfers. Smaller companies can be more agile, as biased systems and processes (those that unintentionally favor one group over others) are not yet ingrained. By taking time to create fair systems early on, organizations will deeply ingrain the intrinsic value of diversity and equality in systems that will scale with them as they grow.
The benefits of diversity extend far beyond social justice and equality. For companies that care about maximizing performance and innovation, diversity should be treated as a priority worthy of early investment. Diversity makes teams smarter, in part because all team members function differently in diverse groups. Diverse groups have been shown to discuss the task at hand more deeply and uncover more unique information. As a result, diverse teams tend to make better decisions and solve problems more effectively. Companies with greater diversity consistently outperform their less diverse competitors, seeing gains in market share, sales revenue, and customers.
By prioritizing unconscious bias training, smaller companies have a unique opportunity to establish themselves as organizations that embrace and value diversity. If you want to attract diverse talent, showing that you care about creating an inclusive and fair workplace is important. Don’t let your candidates wonder, “Do I belong here?” “Will I be accepted?” “Will my contributions be valued?” “Will my perspective be taken seriously?” Instead, show them that the answer is yes. The more you do, the more diverse an environment you’ll create- and things just snowball (in a good way) from there.
With all of the value in focusing on unconscious bias, you’d think more smaller companies would be embracing it too. But when you consider the costs, it can be tough: estimates put a one day course for 50 people around $2,000- $6,000. If you’re interested in offering an unconscious bias training at your smaller company, don’t let a lack of resources stand in your way.
To help support smaller businesses that want to offer unconscious bias training, we’ve made publicly available Medallia’s introductory training on unconscious biases. The presentation, which uses gender as a case study and can be customized for your company, provides an overview of what unconscious bias is, why it matters, and what we can do about it. We do our best to explain the academic research in easy to understand terms, but you needn’t take our word on the findings: our slides include citations for all academic research we cover and we encourage you to take a look for yourself.
Check out the presentation in the embedded video below and share it with friends and coworkers using the link here.
Together, let’s make recognizing unconscious bias and creating a fair workplace a priority for all companies, not just large ones!