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Research demonstrates tactics to blunt unconscious bias

August 26, 2015

By Joe DeSantis, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Recent research from VitalSmarts, a training and consultancy firm, concluded that the more women assert themselves at work, the less competent and less valuable they are perceived to be by both their  male and female colleagues. This was hardly a breakthrough finding; but VitalSmarts took the research a step further to identify tactics that could negate or, better yet, preempt such negative biases. They concluded that such tactics do exist and are effective, although at least one of them can become counterproductive with overuse.  

The research design was complex. Researchers first produced two videos, one using a male actor and the other a female actor, each one playing the role of the research subjects’ “peer.” Both were given the same script to follow in which they disagreed with a point made by a coworker. Built into the script was a neutral reaction and three different levels of forcefulness: mild, moderate, and very forceful. Each actor role-played all the different levels of forcefulness.

Nearly 5,000 research subjects, both male and female (most of them HR professionals) viewed the videos and evaluated each character for competency, status, and even monetary value by assigning a theoretical salary level to each one.

The basic results were not surprising. The more forcefully the actors responded, the less competent they were perceived to be and the lower the salary the subjects assigned to them. However—still no surprise—research subjects lowered the female actor’s assigned salary by 14% but the male actor’s salary by only 6%. The numbers suggest clearly that they were harder on the woman for behaving more forcefully than they were on the man.

Then the research did a second iteration of the experiment, this time to identify strategies that might counter the negative perceptions of the female character. They had the actor assert herself just as forcefully as in the earlier experiment, but this time they had her “frame” her argument in three different ways. First she would preface it by saying, “I’m going to express my opinion very directly.” Then she did it again but this time prefaced it with, “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity.” And then a third time, this time prefaced by “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.”

All three strategies worked, i.e., they resulted in less biased perceptions. But the last one, the one where she openly challenged subjects to confront their biases, worked best. It produced a cumulative 25% more positive perception across all three categories. Next best was the honesty-and-integrity challenge, which the researchers characterized as a “values” challenge, and which resulted in a cumulative 14% less biased response.

Clearly, the more the woman challenged the subjects to behave with their best selves, the more willing they were to put their biases aside. The more direct she was the better the results she got.

However both the study’s leader, David Maxfield, and Professor Nilanjana Dasgupta of the University of Massachusetts, who studies gender bias, agreed that the most direct challenge—the one that included “woman” and “assertively”—demanded the most caution. For one thing, said Professor Dasgupta, you might use that tactic in a team meeting but it probably would not be wise to use it in a job interview. Further, even in a team environment, if you use it over and over again, teammates will eventually feel you do not trust them; it could have the precise opposite effect than the one intended.

Maxfield pointed out that while these strategies may be effective in staving off biased decision-making and behavior, they will not make the problem go away all by themselves. “It would be a huge mistake if we say the entire solution has to be on the backs of women, minorities and other groups that suffer from biases,” he said. To root out gender, race and other forms of counterproductive—not to say illegal—bias requires continuous training and awareness building for leaders as well as team members.

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