THOUGHTS ABOUT ADDRESSING OUR UNCONSCIOUS BIASES

Miriam Stein, a former cochair of the Arlington Vision 2020 Diversity Task Group, wrote the following viewpoint about unconscious bias and cultural competency. It was first published at WickedLocal.com and is republished with her permission. The Arlington School Committee voted June 9 to include training of staff about cultural competency among its district goals.

We all have preferences we know about, such as for certain foods, clothing styles, people we find interesting or attractive. Personally, I am drawn to babies with brown eyes and dark hair. Probably because my son, daughter and husband are dark. Of course, once I interact with infants and toddlers with lighter hair and blue eyes, I appreciate them too, especially when they return my smile.

In those situations, I am conscious of my bias and can compensate for it.

It’s the unconscious biases, those we are not aware of, that push us to act in ways contrary to our values and beliefs. These unconscious preferences cause us to judge others when we don’t even realize what we’re doing.

For example, most people would claim that someone’s height has nothing to do with their ability in a job. However, research in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, found otherwise.

Polled half of corporations

Gladwell polled about half of the largest corporations in the United States, asking each company questions about its CEO. Overwhelmingly white men, they were also overwhelmingly tall. Gladwell says: “In the U.S. population, about 14.5 percent of all men are 6 feet or over. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 percent.

“Of the tens of millions of American men below 5 feet, 6 inches tall, a grand total of 10 — in my sample — have reached the level of CEO, which says that being short is probably as much, or more, of a handicap to corporate success as being a woman or an African-American.

“Is this a deliberate prejudice? No one ever says, dismissively, of a potential CEO candidate that ‘he’s too short.” Most of us, in ways that we are not entirely aware of, automatically associate leadership ability with imposing physical stature. We have a sense, in our minds, of what a leader is supposed to look like, and that stereotype is so powerful that when someone fits it, we simply become blind to other considerations.”

Another of many examples of unconscious bias comes from the Clayman Institute of Gender Studies at Stanford University. Since the 1970s, the number of women musicians in orchestras rose from 5 percent to 25 percent — a shift that happened when judges began auditioning musicians hidden behind screens.

But what about this?

Then there is my 5-feet, three-inch-tall husband with collar-length curly hair who was waiting for an elevator after visiting my mother at a rehabilitation center.

“Are you a musician?” another visitor asked. We laughed at this wonderful example of unconscious bias.

Less amusing is the story of an African-American social worker who was sitting next to a white man in a Boston subway. Uninvited, the man offered him the sports section of his newspaper. The social worker has no interest in sports.

Not funny either is the Arlington scenario of the African-American homeowner who was working in her yard. A deliveryman asked her where the lady of the house could be found.

Some years ago, an African-American elementary school boy, an Arlington resident, was directed to board the METCO bus that transported students from Arlington back to their minority neighborhoods in Boston. Despite his protests that he did not ride the METCO bus, his teachers insisted he was wrong. Finally, someone clarified the situation.

Sadly, Arlington is not immune to unconscious bias that pervades our society. Often the only people who notice are the children and adults on the receiving end of the prejudicial action or phrase.

How can we bring about change? First, we need to recognize that we all have unconscious biases. Cultural competency training can help us become aware of them, and then counter our intuitive inclinations.

Bias program drew 200

Arlingtonians have been fortunate to receive a taste of cultural competency through recent programs in the schools, the police department and other happenings, including the “Unconscious Bias” program at the Town Hall that drew 200 people. The presentation by Harvard’s Project Implicit noted that unconscious bias could be reversed by experiences that contradict previous bias.

For example, at first when children were asked to draw pictures of scientists, they drew a white male with round glasses and a long lab coat. Later, after visiting with real world scientists, the children’s sketches included more diversity, including women with various complexions and fashionable clothes.

A two-minute video on other cultural-competency strategies is by Elizabeth Ozer, Ph.D, professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at University of California, San Francisco, here >>

She recommends that search committees develop ground rules for equity in hiring and reducing stereotypes, including structured interviews and objective evaluation criteria. Cultural-competency training is essential for these shifts.

Programs to improve awareness about cultural competency are wise investments in our present and future. In schools, governmental entities, religious congregations and civic associations, cultural-competency trainings will enhance the quality of life for all who live, work or visit Arlington.


This viewpoint was published Friday, June 24, 2016.

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