Erasing Institutional Bias

How to Create Systemic Change for Organizational Inclusion

Tiffany Jana (Author) | Ashley Diaz Mejias (Author)

Publication date: 10/23/2018

Erasing Institutional Bias
All humans have bias, and as a result, so do the institutions we build. Internationally sought-after diversity consultant Tiffany Jana empowers readers to work against institutional bias no matter what their position is in an organization.
   
Building upon the revelatory power of her book
Overcoming Bias, which addressed managing individual and interpersonal bias, Erasing Institutional Bias scales up the framework to impact systemic change in organizations. Jana and coauthor Ashley Diaz Mejias bring together in-depth research on how biases become embedded into workplace cultures with practical and engaging tools that will mobilize readers toward action. They confront specific topics such as racism, sexism, hiring and advancement bias and retribution bias, meaning when organizations develop a culture of aggression, and offer solutions for identifying and controlling them.

This book urges readers to ask questions such as, “Are we attempting to create systems in which all people can thrive? What kind of world and what kind of workplaces are we cultivating?” These questions, the authors say, must first be answered by ourselves, recognizing our own role in perpetuating harmful biases that come to define institutions.

In a world divided, Erasing Institutional Bias is designed to raise awareness about imbalances and help us hold ourselves accountable for creating a world that works for everyone. Each of us can evaluate our own current role in perpetuating systemic bias and define our new role in breaking it down. Jana and Mejias inspire and equip us so that we can all affect organizational change, together.

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Overview

All humans have bias, and as a result, so do the institutions we build. Internationally sought-after diversity consultant Tiffany Jana empowers readers to work against institutional bias no matter what their position is in an organization.
   
Building upon the revelatory power of her book
Overcoming Bias, which addressed managing individual and interpersonal bias, Erasing Institutional Bias scales up the framework to impact systemic change in organizations. Jana and coauthor Ashley Diaz Mejias bring together in-depth research on how biases become embedded into workplace cultures with practical and engaging tools that will mobilize readers toward action. They confront specific topics such as racism, sexism, hiring and advancement bias and retribution bias, meaning when organizations develop a culture of aggression, and offer solutions for identifying and controlling them.

This book urges readers to ask questions such as, “Are we attempting to create systems in which all people can thrive? What kind of world and what kind of workplaces are we cultivating?” These questions, the authors say, must first be answered by ourselves, recognizing our own role in perpetuating harmful biases that come to define institutions.

In a world divided, Erasing Institutional Bias is designed to raise awareness about imbalances and help us hold ourselves accountable for creating a world that works for everyone. Each of us can evaluate our own current role in perpetuating systemic bias and define our new role in breaking it down. Jana and Mejias inspire and equip us so that we can all affect organizational change, together.

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Meet the Authors


Visit Author Page - Tiffany Jana
Tiffany Jana is the CEO of TMI Portfolio, a collection of companies working to advance inclusive workplaces. TMI Consulting Inc., a TMI Portfolio company, is a 2018 Best for the World B Corporation. Jana is also the coauthor of Overcoming Bias.

Visit Author Page - Ashley Diaz Mejias
Ashley Diaz Mejias earned her MA in religious studies at the University of Virginia and her MDiv at Union Presbyterian Seminary and has devoted her work to examining race, systemic bias, and mass incarceration.

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Excerpt

Erasing Institutional Bias: How to Create Systemic Change for Organizational Inclusion

Chapter One

Understanding the Problem

Institutional or systemic bias is the phenomenon that exists when some groups maintain advantage over others within the context of a particular structure. Institutional bias is the result of interpersonal bias that has been institutionalized, or embedded within systems. Each of the biases enumerated in this book can operate at the interpersonal level and the institutional level. The examples of bias in this book are operating at the institutional level unless otherwise stated. The institutional biases that we will expand upon in this book include in the following order:

Occupational Bias An implicit bias that assigns fixed human or demographic attributes to a particular job or career.

Gender Bias An implicit bias that assigns fixed attributes by gender and/or privileges one gender over another.

Racial Bias An implicit preference of one race over another.

Hiring/Advancement Bias Any implicit preference that creates hiring and advancement opportunities that privilege one group over another.

Customer Bias Any interpersonal bias that supports valuing some customers over others. (For example, assuming that foreign people aren’t good potential customers/clients/donors because they don’t speak your language or have enough money.)

Retribution Bias An implicit assumption that exacting retribution is of greater consequence than preserving or maintaining a relationship.

Interpersonal bias includes the human preferences and assumptions we have for, against, and about each other. Interpersonal biases include racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, ageism, the tendency to like or dislike people based on variables like weight, political affiliation, leadership status, intelligence, education, religion, socioeconomic class, or anything that defines people. Sometimes the biases are based on things people cannot change, like race, or things they can, like politics. Either way, interpersonal bias is what divides us and compromises our ability to build healthy, diverse relationships with all kinds of people. If you think of interpersonal bias as a single germ—a toxic little antagonist that can destroy healthy cells—then institutional bias is an infection, an outbreak of a germ at scale that can sicken or obliterate an entire system.

When one group is allowed to prosper over others for extended periods of time, systemic bias is usually at play. Are we attempting to create systems in which all people can thrive? Do we care whether people have equal opportunities to excel and advance based on individual merit? Are we more concerned with advancing people who think like us? Are we creating opportunities for people who went to our schools, with whom we share social interactions and interests? What kind of world and what kind of workplaces are we cultivating? The world arguably consists of systems that have already been optimized to yield the results we see today. These may be results that work for some, but there are a great many people who see imbalance and injustice in the systems we have today.

This book is designed to raise awareness about the imbalance in the collective consciousness and help us hold ourselves accountable for creating a world that works for everyone. Many of our readers may be in more formalized organizational settings such as corporate workplaces or civic organizations. This means that many of you will have some form of organizational power that you can access, whether you are in a small or large organization. Though we are writing with these environments in mind, we are drawing on research and conclusions that have implications for almost all areas of life. In other words, the benefits of creating more equitable organizations translate into the world at large. This is good for everyone!

However, we are writing and drawing on examples of people who are, for the most part, working to instigate change from within organizations. It is important that we acknowledge that many people in the world have been completely marginalized and excluded from the benefits of systemic or organizational power and are looking for ways to organize and work for equity from outside traditional and established organizations. While we believe our insights can support that work, we aren’t writing explicitly to those circumstances simply because our scope is limited to the areas of our expertise.

We have become accustomed to cultivating systems that work well for those in power, those with wealth and connections, and those with access to the levers of change within systems. We have mountains of research that prove that diversity and inclusion help create smarter, more effective, more profitable systems. If diversity serves the greater good, whether economic or social, why have we not developed our systems to optimize inclusion?

How do you erase institutional bias?

Institutional bias can be erased if each of us owns our individual responsibility to be part of the solution. How many times have you witnessed something in an organization and known darn well that it was unfair? Maybe you are even self-aware enough already to be able to acknowledge a time in your career when you were the person responsible for carrying out an action that was unfair or biased. We propose that each of us starts with ourselves and go through the four steps we shared in the Introduction:

Once you have done that, you can take on the six steps to erasing institutional bias. Each of the following steps will be expanded with examples from people and institutions that have succeeded in moving the needles toward greater organizational inclusion.

It is important to note that the systems we have operating in our world today are systems of our own design. Maybe not you and me specifically, but human beings set forth to create organizational systems, bias and all, quite deliberately. Of course, the people who designed these systems made them hospitable for themselves and people like them. That statement is not intended to stereotype or pigeonhole any particular group other than those with the power to construct systems. The people in power will look different from nation to nation. They may vary by gender, race, ethnicity, religion, education, beliefs, and so on. What these social architects have in common is power. They share an out-sized influence on society, communities, and people who choose (or must function) within those systems.

We are proposing that we work to erase institutional bias because those of us adversely affected by these systems are fed up. And many of us who have outsized power and influence to affect systemic change are equally fed up. This isn’t just about David confronting Goliath. More and more, mighty giants are standing up in the face of the selfsame institutional bias they have supported to say enough is enough. They, too, are aware of the problem and, in many cases, are prepared to be part of the solution. The best example we have of this is the B Corp community. B Corps are for-profit companies that choose to include society and the environment as stakeholders to whom they are accountable. Recently, a significant subset of the B Corp community decided to up the ante and participate in the Inclusive Economy Challenge. B Lab says:

Launched in 2016, the Inclusive Economy Challenge is a call to action for the B Corp Community to increase our collective positive impact and move toward an inclusive economy. An inclusive economy is one that is equitable and creates opportunity for all people of all backgrounds and experiences to live with dignity, to support themselves and their families, and to help their communities thrive. The B Corp Community’s vision of a shared and durable prosperity is not possible without an inclusive economy.

The Inclusive Economy Challenge provides accountability, targeted resources, and a structure of peer learning to help participating companies tackle complex, sensitive, and urgent issues.

So, the obvious question is: how are we going to erase institutional bias? We are certain you are thinking, hey, if it were possible, wouldn’t institutional bias already be erased? The short answer is no. The authors of this book are optimists with more than a healthy dose of skepticism. The reality of the situation is that the world has not been ready to erase institutional bias and may not be just yet. But we are closer to achieving a critical mass of people who want to see real change and are willing to go to bat to make it happen. This is certainly the case in the United States.

Every so often, significant historical events serve as wake-up calls to communities and nations. Anything from a national election to the public shaming of high-profile leaders and celebrities can reveal evidence of institutional bias in governments, industries, and sectors of economy. Sometimes biased decisions made in the past are carried forward past the point of their utility, or past the point when people begin to value inclusion more than their predecessors. For example, the founding fathers of the United States—an oligarchical, self-serving concentration of power if there ever was one—decided to create the Electoral College to prevent average US citizens from electing a president by popular vote. They were biased against common folk and critical of their collective intelligence, so they created a system that placed ultimate power in the hands of a privileged few individuals with the resources and wherewithal to run for and win congressional seats.

Many people believe that as education has become more accessible and as America has led the world in the most inclusive and comprehensive antidiscrimination laws, class and racial tensions are in conflict with the historical system of voting in the USA. The good news is that now it is not solely the historically marginalized people who see the systemic problems and want them addressed; people who fall into the categories of the historically privileged are finally on board. And a million thanks to those who’ve been on board for years—we see you, too. The difference is that now we have a groundswell. Now we can do something about institutional bias and we will not be ignored.

Theory of Change: How We Make It Happen

The phrase “Theory of Change” sounds complicated and intimidating, but it’s really pretty straightforward—it’s a way of creating a road map to a desired result. Here, we’re all hoping to create more inclusive organizations, or places where people’s gender and gender identities, race, occupations, and so on—all the things that could contribute to mistreatment—are no longer disqualifiers. Our theory of change is that we can:

Create sustainable systemic change by leveraging data to create tools that hold institutions accountable.

In other words, if we leverage data and create tools that hold institutions accountable, we absolutely can create sustainable change. Our theory of change is based in the reality that our feelings are not reliable sources of information for instigating fair and equitable change. We believe that we must set aside our personal assumptions and feelings and invite experts to provide data. Credible data can help us initiate meaningful conversations, develop metrics-based tools, and make changes that support human equity—especially in organizations.

If we move through our six-step framework (which we will discuss in depth later in this book) and begin to name the things that have gone unnamed, then we will gain power over institutional bias. This is not to say that it will get everyone on board. But leading with data and creating data-driven tools can help us hold ourselves and our institutions accountable for the systemic changes we aim to create.

There is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance that we experience when we first begin to entertain the notion that an institutional system may not be what it appears to be on the surface. We are taught to believe that all job applications get equal and fair consideration. You may have learned this as a young child when warned by a parent to avoid interactions with the police, or you may have learned this as an adult when you saw friends get mistreated in their industry because of race or gender. “The System” is not fair, and if you’ve picked up this book, it’s likely that you want to find a way to make things better.

But how? Well, we can’t just trust our instincts. It’s important to note that as Americans, we regularly over-estimate the diversity of population groups that we’re asked to evaluate. A 2013 study released by the Center for American Progress and PolicyLink concluded that Americans vastly overestimate current levels of diversity in the United States, with the average respondent guessing that 49 percent of the nation is minority.1 The actual figure is closer to 37 percent. The two largest minority groups being Hispanics and Latinas at 18 percent followed by African Americans making up 13 percent of the US population. Sixty-one percent of the people in the United States identify as white, non-Hispanic, or Latino.

People’s tendency to overestimate minority populations in the United States leads to disproportionate concern about who is taking over jobs, committing crimes, and generally taking over the US population as some people have come to know it. Those assumptions affect people’s attitudes and opinions about level-setting programs like Affirmative Action and Welfare. Would people feel differently about social programs that affect marginalized communities if they had data that indicated that more nonminority people actually benefit from government funded programs than minorities? We don’t know. But we do know that the conversations would be more productive if we could all start with factual data.

Given the enormity and power of systemic bias in the United States, change can seem virtually impossible. We believe, though, that change actually is possible. Systems were built biased by humans and systems can be dismantled and made just by humans. In order to do this, though, we must begin in our own spheres of influence and be willing to lay down our own personal agendas in favor of what is best for the collective.

Stereotype Threat

Erasing institutional bias isn’t just about making your workplace “fair” or maximizing your bottom line, but you probably already guessed that. Erasing institutional bias can actually change the way people—individual people—see themselves in your workplace and in the world and, thus, can actually inspire people to live with more confidence.

Many folks these days are aware enough to avoid using direct stereotypes when dealing with those who are different from them. What’s frightening, however, is that those stereotypes have power even when they aren’t directly being used, so a stereotype about a person can cause damage even when it isn’t being invoked. This kind of destruction is far more insidious and has proven to be far more confusing and catastrophic in studies of minority performance on tests, in job interviews, and in other settings.

This type of subconscious stereotype awareness is called a stereotype threat and is commonly defined as the expectation that one will be judged on the basis of social identity group membership rather than actual performance and potential.2 Stereotype threats, which operate at an intuitive level, create crippling anxiety, stress, and fear.

Experiments have demonstrated that when people feel less anxiety and when they feel comfortable, they are judged by conversation partners and observers to be wittier and more intelligent. Stereotype threats, then, invoke negative stereotypes about a group of people to increase anxiety and fear in performance-based settings, many times working like a self-fulfilling prophecy. When people are asked to perform a task and they are worried that their behavior or performance may likely conform to stereotypes about their race, gender, and sexuality, their attention “splits,” so to speak.

If you want to understand this more, just think of a time when you felt comfortable with someone and you thought to yourself, “Man, I am really funny!” or “I sound pretty smart!” Or, maybe you can think of a time when the reverse has been true—you’ve been introduced to someone at a party and mid-conversation you’ve thought to yourself, “I feel so dumb—I cannot think of a single thing to say to this person.” Odds are, you aren’t making it up!

The stress of worrying about whatever stereotype they are primed to be concerned with diminishes their ability to actually complete the task they are asked to complete. Psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson have documented the phenomenon and found that, for example, members of groups found to be academically inferior—such as African Americans and Latinos enrolled in college, or female students in STEM courses—perform significantly worse on tests when they are reminded beforehand of their race or gender.

Why is this important? Well, for starters, it’s not just a problem we can think our way out of! In a 2015 study out of Indiana University, researchers studying the impact of stereotype threats on women discovered that not only were stereotype threats found at work, but they also discovered that both men and women surveyed significantly underestimated the impact of these stereotype threats against women. Prior to completing the tasks, both men and women reported the belief that performing the studied tasks under negative stereotypes about women would be a “motivating challenge” and predicted overwhelmingly that the women would “overcome these roadblocks.” However, the results of the study confirmed that the women studied reported high levels of anxiety and they did not report high levels of motivation.

In other words, this data confirmed that there was a significant disconnect between expectations and reality—the vast majority of participants in the study thought that women would know better and could just power through negative stereotypes about themselves. The data, however, showed that these stereotypes have more power than we think. This reality is a significant one that has implications for schools and workplaces. We may just believe that women and minorities in our workplaces should have the willpower and positive mindset to perform a particular way, but research—data—has shown time and time again that stereotypes are much more powerful than we think.

Using data and our six-step process can actually improve overall performance and maximize employee potential but, more importantly, it can address the nebulous cloud of anxiety that may be holding back some of your best people. In other words, addressing institutional bias can actually make you and your employees feel better by addressing these stereotype threats. In the next chapters, we will review specific types of institutional bias and begin to define how you can prepare yourself for the challenge of erasing it.

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Endorsements

“This book is for individuals and leaders who are ready to move beyond discussion and start taking measurable action toward including the full rainbow of humanity in their enterprises. This book provides a structured path forward for individuals and institutions to take measured, objective steps toward creating more equitable and inclusive workplaces.”
—Van Jones, President, Dream Corps; author of the New York Times bestselling books The Green Collar Economy and Rebuild the Dream; CNN contributor; and host of The Van Jones Show

“Jana and Mejias provide a great foundation for leaders and change-makers looking to disrupt the status quo.”
— Chas. Floyd Johnson, Executive Producer, NCIS: Los Angeles 

“This book should be required reading. Jana and Mejias have drawn us a clear road map for navigating intention toward action.”
—Kelly Chopus, CEO, Robins Foundation

“An important guide to help readers discern how to begin their journey of grace filled action.”
—Monsignor G. Michael Schleupner, priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore and author of Inbox Inspirations

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