Author Talks: How to interrupt bias in the workplace

Companies spend billions of dollars annually on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, but the results are few. Using basic tools to interrupt bias can help.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Mona Hamouly chats with Joan C. Williams, distinguished professor of law, chair of the Hastings Foundation, and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings Law. In Bias Interrupted: Creating Inclusion for Real and for Good (Harvard Business Review Press, November 2021), Williams explains how leaders can use standard business tools—data, metrics, and persistence—to interrupt the bias that is continually transmitted through formal systems in the workplace. That will lead to enhanced diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. An edited version of the interview follows.

What problem were you trying to solve with this book?

In writing this book, I was trying to solve a really simple problem, which is that companies have been spending about $8 billion a year on DEI initiatives, and unfortunately, not moving the needle very much, if at all. The simple message of the book is that companies have been using the wrong tools.

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If a company had a problem with sales, you wouldn’t hold a deep, sincere conversation about how much everybody values sales, dedicate a “National Celebrate Sales Month,” and expect anything to change. Unfortunately, that’s a lot of what we’ve been doing in the DEI context.

Businesses need to use basic business tools to solve this business problem—the same ones they use to solve any business problem: evidence, metrics, and persistence, until they achieve their concrete, measurable goals.

If a company had a problem with sales, you wouldn’t hold a deep, sincere conversation about how much everybody values sales, dedicate a ‘National Celebrate Sales Month,’ and expect anything to change. Unfortunately, that’s a lot of what we’ve been doing in the diversity, equity, and inclusion context.

What surprised you when writing this book?

Not much. I’ve been studying this stuff for over 15 years. I’ll go back and tell you what did surprise me the first time these findings began to emerge—the findings that are now well documented.

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One of the very first projects I did was write a book, actually with my daughter, called What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know [New York University Press, 2014]. For that book, we interviewed highly successful women, and I just told them, “Here are the patterns of gender bias that show up in the literature. Any of that sound familiar?”

I knew a lot of these had happened to me, but I didn’t know how common they were. I was completely shocked to find that 96 percent of the women I interviewed had encountered these commonly documented forms of gender bias.

When I started to study racial bias very intensively, I was really shocked at the level of disrespect that professionals of color report in the workplace. As a White woman, a lot of stuff happens. A lot of it’s great; a lot of it’s not so great. But the kind of raw disrespect reported by people of color, especially by African Americans, I found deeply, deeply shocking.

Describe the five patterns of bias.

One of the things we find with dazzling consistency is that there are five basic patterns of bias. The first is “prove it again.” Some groups have to prove themselves more than others. The second we call the “tightrope,” and that refers to the idea that office politics is more complicated for some groups than others.

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Short description: White men just need to be authoritative and ambitious, but other groups need to find a way of being authoritative and ambitious in a way that’s seen as appropriate for their groups. So a woman who is being very hard driving may be seen as difficult or having “sharp elbows.” An African American man, for example, who’s being very assertive in a business context—in a way that, in a White man, might be seen as showing a career-enhancing passion for the business—might be written off as intimidating or angry.

We find, particularly in tech, that Latinas—often when, again, they’re being authoritative in the context of a business disagreement—are seen as being emotional or even feisty. And “feisty” is such an interesting word because it basically says, “You are displaying authoritativeness in a way that I am coding as merely cute.”

The third pattern, which is also triggered both by race and by gender, we call the “tug of war.” That’s when bias against a group fuels conflicts within the group. That syndrome often happens when women are pitted against each other for the one “woman’s slot.” And this can happen if people of color are pitted against each other for the one “diversity slot.” So that’s when bias against a group really freights the relationships within the group.

The fourth pattern, which is actually the strongest pattern of gender bias, is the “maternal wall”: gender bias triggered by motherhood. Mothers are stereotyped as less competent and committed than other people.

The final pattern comprises the racial stereotypes and experiences that differ by group and that haven’t been picked up by these other four patterns. For example, as I mentioned, African Americans often experience very high levels of social isolation and disrespect. Asian Americans are stereotyped by White people as good for technical matters but not having leadership potential.

These are the five patterns that show up with just remarkable consistency in our data sets, which are now approaching 20,000 people.

Is hiring more women and people of color enough?

One of the standard approaches to DEI is to say, “We just need to hire more women and people of color.” That’s a really important initiative; I totally endorse it. But it’s not the answer.

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What we have seen over the past 25 years is many organizations hiring women and hiring people of color and then having them leave. The really important message is that you have to interrupt bias in your basic business systems, not only in hiring, but in performance evaluations, where these five patterns of bias very commonly play out.

We’ve done studies and worked with organizations to correct this. If we keep hiring women and people of color, and then they don’t see a future for themselves, because they’re not getting fair access to career-enhancing opportunities, the handwriting is on the wall. They will leave.

What our studies show is that White men report really high levels of fair access to career-enhancing opportunity, sometimes as high as 87 percent. In one data set, we found that only 53 percent of Black women reported fair access to career-enhancing assignments. For far too long, organizations have focused on hiring, but they haven’t focused on changing the conditions once people have been hired.

For far too long, organizations have focused on hiring, but they haven’t focused on changing the conditions once people have been hired.

How can CEOs reach DEI goals?

I have a very reassuring message, first of all, to CFOs. Here’s an invitation to stop throwing money at the problem and not solving it. The reassuring message to CEOs is that all you need to do is use basic business tools.

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Very often, in recent years, the solution has been to have a deep, sincere conversation about how much we all value inclusion. Those conversations are not useless. They are helpful. But a sincere conversation is not an effective organizational-change strategy; it just isn’t. What you need to do as a CEO and as a company is to use this 40 years of research on exactly how bias plays out on the ground, to go back in your business systems, and to begin to correct for these various biases.

That really highlights another reason why we’ve seen so little progress. The solution recently has been, “We have a problem; let’s hire a head of DEI.” But often, the heads of DEI are not set up to succeed, because you hire a head of DEI, and then you put on programming. That’s what they have a budget for.

But in order to be successful, that head of DEI needs authority to be able to change the performance-evaluation system. You need very close authority between DEI and HR. Also, the head of DEI needs to be able to change access and equalize access to plum assignments. So the head of DEI, in order to be successful, needs the ability to provide input on who gets that flow of career-enhancing assignments.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected this?

The COVID-19 pandemic has made all of this better, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made all of this worse. Both are true.

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One of the things that the pandemic did was finally normalize workplace flexibility. I was part of the generation that literally invented those arrangements back in the ’90s, and we knew that the only thing holding them back was a failure of imagination. That failure of imagination was remedied in three weeks’ time in March 2020. Now we have remote and hybrid work that’s been normalized, and that could really enhance opportunities for mothers—and opportunities for people of color because families of color are less likely to have a sole, dominant breadwinner than White families are.

On the other hand, just as the transition to hybrid work could really enhance DEI, it could really corrode DEI goals, as well, if it’s not handled well. For example, if you have a situation where more White men are coming back and working full time on site, and you have on-site favoritism going on, then the people who are working remotely are not going to thrive. They are going to leave, and that’s going to be predominantly women and people of color.

If you start out from the evidence, and you use these very concrete tools, you can make progress on DEI in short order, which I think is welcome news to a lot of people. On the Bias Interrupters website, we have lots of open-access tools. I would really urge people to go to biasinterrupters.org and, please, steal our stuff.

Watch the full interview

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Joan C. Williams on how to interrupt bias in the workplace

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