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The End of Bias

The End of Bias” written by Jessica Nordel was the last book I read in 2021. I learned a lot reading it because it challenged and inspired me at the same time.


The End of Bias


I’m sharing in this entry some of the key insights I got while reading it and reflecting upon:



The contradiction between values of fairness and real-world discrimination has come to be called "unconscious bias," "implicit bias," or sometimes "unintentional" or “unexamined bias." It describes the behavior of people who want to act one way but in fact act another.



The differences between the expressions and virulence of unconscious bias experienced by people of various religions, races, ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientations, and genders are vast, ranging from lost job opportunities to lethal bodily harm.

But in each instance, the brute mechanics are the same. The individual who acts with bias engages with an expectation instead of reality. That expectation is assembled from the artifacts of culture: headlines and history books, myths and statistics, encounter real and imagined, and selective interpretations of reality that confirm prior beliefs. Biased individuals do not see a person. They see a person-shaped daydream.



Psychologist Stephanie Fryberg of the Tulalip Tribes points out, any true understanding of prejudice must take into account not only actions but omissions.



The idea of implicit bias suggests that bias functions like a circuit. The circuit begins when we absorb “cultural knowledge" from the world around us, as our families, the media, our classrooms, our neighborhoods shower us with information about different groups of people



The notion of Implicit Bias suggests that discrimination need not necessarily emerge from malice or strongly held prejudices. Some people who act in discriminatory ways are unapologetically racist or sexist.



Essentializing is one trick of the categorizing brain, but the brain performs other stunts with categories, too. Given two categories, we overestimate the differences between them. We underestimate the variation among members of each group, imagining it as monolithic. We also tend to see our own group as beautifully diverse and people outside it as homogeneous. The technical term for this is "outgroup homogeneity"



Stereotypes persist in part because they are culturally useful: they legitimize the status quo.



Our vision of what's possible for our lives can be partly fueled by others' recognition. If one group of people receives less recognition, they also experience less of a boost in confidence and resolve.



The training might also be unintentionally sending the wrong message. For instance, unconscious bias training often emphasizes that unconscious bias is common.

Yet research suggests that when people receive messages that everyone stereotypes, they may do more of it. If people believe that stereotyping is normal, they may be less motivated to change.

Moreover, training focused on racism that occurs in mixed-race groups-particularly if offered by an unskilled facilitator can be exhausting and harmful for people of color, who may be asked to "teach" White people, or treated as a spectacle.



Indeed, a meta-analysis of forty years of diversity training found that they have the greatest impact when they go beyond raising awareness to include building new skills and behaviors. It also found that in settings where people are motivated to learn, like in schools, their effects are greater.



People may also insist on their own impartiality, stating that they themselves are objective and thus incapable of bias. Those who fear being vulnerable may prefer a shield of objectivity to admit limitations. Members of dominant groups may, in the absence of self-examination, even believe they are being objective. But research shows that both of these strategies, belief in one's own objectivity and “blindness" to gender or color, not only are ineffective but actually make bias worse.



Anger is sometimes described as a "funnel emotion" for men: feelings of grief or sadness or shame can be converted to and expressed as anger, a more culturally acceptable way for men to express their emotions.



Practicing awareness allows us to notice our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as they arise. Practicing non-judgment helps us sit with those thoughts and feelings rather than turn them away, even if they're unpleasant. And practicing attention strengthens our cognitive control, so we can have more influence over our reactions.



For those of us who have privileged aspects of our identities.


Ensuring that people thrive and stay in the fields that need them and that they are elevated to their level of competence, requires more than one top-down structural change. It requires a change of culture.


One of the strategies for breaking down bias is to imagine another person's point of view. The power of meaningful contact with people from another group is that you don't have to imagine their perspective: you actually know them. You don't have to mentally replace stereotypes because you see that people don't fit them. And you don't have to guess situational reasons for a person's behavior because you witness the situation.



Preferential hiring wasn't bringing in less qualified people; it was removing barriers to outstanding ones.



Role models serve as a “social vaccine," helping "inoculate" underrepresented individuals against the negative effects of stereotypes on their sense of their own capacity.


Crucially, real-world role models don't just inoculate targets of prejudice against adversity, they also erode that adversity by changing others' perceptions.



Being a pioneer.

It's a seemingly simple point: being the first or only person of your identity in a department, or a field, or an organization, is not a role everyone wants or is suited to. We cheer pioneers, but the path is lonely and alienating. Pioneers are constantly confronted with their "otherness." They must contend with others' stereotyping, discomfort, or outright aggression. To survive, they must be able to maintain a sense of well-being in an environment that is harsher to them than it is to others. What this means is that in addition to having all of the formal skills to do the job, the first woman, or the first Black person, or the first Native American person, or the first Latino person must have an additional unstated set of skills and characteristics that have nothing to do with the explicit job description. For these individuals to function in so many organizations whose cultures are exclusionary, there is a set of shadow requirements-call them “pioneer requirements."



One danger of homogenous organizations, a deep and little appreciated one: they artificially shrink the pool of candidates from underrepresented backgrounds.

They require those candidates to possess not only the stated requirements but the shadow traits, too. The number of people from any group who possess both is exceedingly small.

One complaint about affirmative action programs is that they artificially boost the number of individuals from underrepresented groups in a given school, organization, or company.

But homogenous environments artificially boost the number from the majority culture: the skill set they need is much smaller.



Indeed, increasing diversity is only one step toward fixing a biased environment. It doesn't guarantee fairness or provide the fuel for long-term success. Ensuring that people thrive and stay in the fields that need them and that they are elevated to their level of competence, requires more than one top-down structural change. It requires a change of culture.



While there is growing awareness that creating an inclusive environment requires active, meaningful efforts, what “inclusion" actually means is less clear.

Without a single universal definition, it has come to stand for everything from having meaningful connections to others to participating in decision-making, to having access to insider information. Some researchers posit that in inclusive environments, people have a voice and feel that they belong.


An inclusive setting has three features: fair and unbiased practices, a welcoming attitude of and respect for people's "whole selves," and the desire to seek different perspectives. In much research, inclusion is assessed by asking questions. Do you feel welcome? Do your ideas matter? Do you belong?



Removing bias from everyday practices is essential but not sufficient for creating a truly inclusive environment.

To foster a climate that includes all, everyday practices must be built on a foundation of learning from and valuing differences.

And this environment need not be a workplace. These dynamics play a role in places where people live, worship, and learn.



In a hierarchal organization, there's a limit to the possibilities of sharing power and decision-making. But if an environment is fair, if an organization welcomes and values differences, if influence is not restricted to members of a majority group, all this will go a long way toward creating an inclusive experience.



Some organizations want diverse faces but not diverse minds.



All situations in which there is diversity have the potential for conflict and confusion; an attitude of learning defuses those tensions and transforms them into useful material.



An attitude of learning and growth is what distinguishes organizations that achieve lasting inclusion. Seeing differences as riches and being willing to learn from those differences allows people to see conflict as an opportunity for growth, not a land mine to avoid.



There is an approach to diversity, that avoids the pitfalls of the others. In this perspective, diversity is seen as necessary because different skills and viewpoints are considered crucial, not just to attract specific customers but for the institution itself to evolve.



The real question shouldn't only be whether people feel welcome, but whether they have influence. This can be measured by looking at the actual distribution of decision-making. In a typical company, organizational charts are often starkly revealing: who the organization values can be seen in the apportioning of power.



It's possible to feel valued and respected and included without actually being included.


When MD Blackstock took on her leadership role, for instance, she did feel generally welcome. Her medical work and teaching were respected. Her colleagues and deans were friendly. But that was before she tried to bring her unique point of view to bear on how the organization worked. When she wanted to use her voice to effect change and make a larger impact when she wanted not just to feel included but to have actual influence, the limits of her inclusion became unmistakable.



Much research suggests that feeling accepted and having a sense of belonging, the hallmarks of inclusion, help people persist through difficulty and boost their achievement. It also helps them stay motivated to remain in their fields



Transforming the minds, hearts, and habits of individuals is one way to change bias. Another is to change processes, structures, and the culture of organizations.

The two, of course, are intertwined: individuals create the processes, structures, and organizational culture, and these in turn shape individuals' thoughts and actions.

But we are also the product of our larger culture-the broader environment in which we live.