In the span of a mere second, the human brain processes 11 million bits of information. That’s a lot of brain-racking. Or is it? The fact is a microscopic fraction of that volume – 40 bits – courses through our brain consciously. The vast majority of the information is processed under the radar of conscious thought. Think respiration, heartbeat and digestion – those autonomic (automatic) nervous system functions that make our bodies hum without us even noticing.
And that’s a problem when some of that unconscious data processing is rooted in a bias about other people based on factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, race and physical ability and emerges in ways that shape our viewpoints and decisions. But it’s an even bigger issue when these unconscious biases lead to inequitable if unintentional treatment of others in the workplace.
Alicia Scott, senior director of Diversity, Inclusion and Talent at ON Semiconductor, is no stranger to unconscious bias. She’s well-schooled in how it can influence human behavior and, as a Black woman working in the male-dominated business world of technology, has encountered it first-hand.
Speaking at FLEX Conference 2021 last month to promote diversity in the tech industry, Scott recounted her phone conversation with a potential vendor last year to review a proposal. During the call, the vendor representative, knowing from Scott’s voice that he was speaking with a woman, asked if he could review the proposal with Scott and her manager at another time.
“Does he have any availability to meet next week,” the vendor asked with no ill intent, assuming Scott’s manager was male, in a textbook case of a gender bias.
After Scott’s last promotion, a co-worker congratulated her on her move up the corporate ladder, then asked if it was meant to help ON Semiconductor meet its workplace diversity goals – a revealing blind spot in the form of promotion bias.
And even Scott herself has felt the visceral pull of bias – affinity bias, the propensity to be drawn to people who are like us. Once, while screening resumes submitted for a position she needed to fill, Scott came across a candidate who had graduated from her alma mater. Her pulse quickened with excitement at the thought of the shared educational experience. To help steer clear of the natural tendency for hiring managers to favor candidates with a common background, the company had already implemented interview panels to ensure a balanced, objective review of prospective employees’ qualifications. The candidate with the strongest credentials, not the applicant who initially caught Scott’s eye, landed the job.
Unconscious bias spans the talent life cycle
Unconscious bias can surface at nearly every stage throughout the talent life cycle including recruiting, promotions and leadership, Scott said. Citing a Harvard Business Review study, she noted that just 11.5% of job applicants of Asian descent received callbacks when their resumes and job applications included a foreign-looking name. African Americans fared even worse. Recruiters contacted only 10% percent of Blacks when their resumes included details pointing to their ethnicity. When ethnic references were removed from job applications submitted by both cohorts, the numbers jumped, with 25% of Black and 21% of Asian candidates receiving calls from recruiters.
Unconscious bias is also a barrier to women rising through the corporate ranks to executive roles, according to Leading Now, a global advocacy group that promotes workplace diversity. One reason, Scott said in highlighting the findings, is that career advice to women over the last four decades has been geared toward helping them assume entry-level to middle management, not executive, positions.
A recent McKinsey & Company Women in the Workplace study lends support to the Leading Now research, showing that for every 100 men promoted to management roles, just 85 women rose to the same level, Scott noted. Across all industries, men hold 62% of management positions, compared to just 38% for women. In the male-dominated tech industry, women occupy just 24% of management roles.
Physical stature can also hold workers back from rising to the top. Male CEOs of large companies average 6 feet in height, 90% of CEOs are above average height, and tall men are promoted more often than shorter males.
Turning the tables on unintended behavior
To ward off unconscious bias, one of the best ways to start may be to turn to the brain-based SEEDS Model developed by the NeuroLeadership Institute. The model boils down more than 150 types of unconscious bias into five that have an outsized effect on decision-making and offers prevention guidance. For example, corporate workers can try to find common ground with people who appear different than they are, gather more information to form a more complete picture of those with different backgrounds, and seek others’ viewpoints to prevent similarity, expedience and experience biases from clouding their ability to make objective decisions.
One key is for organizations to implement processes to help overcome unconscious bias, Scott said. For example, grass-roots initiatives such as employee resource groups and unconscious bias training can begin to cultivate a diversity work culture. In the executive suite, CEOs and other business leaders can serve as diversity role models and implement systemic measures to help overcome cultural barriers.
The payoff is clear. The more diversity and inclusion initiatives are integrated with human resources and business processes, the higher the likelihood that companies will drive more innovation and better business outcomes. Compared to organizations less mindful of unconscious biases, companies with a diversity and inclusion mindset are two times more likely to meet or exceed financial goals, six times more likely to be innovative and agile, three times more likely to be high-performing and eight times more likely to achieve better business results, Scott said, citing research by Deloitte.
As organizations consider where to start in building a diversity-minded culture, it turns out the most important step may be the first – realizing just how little of our brain power we actually use to think.
“We must all acknowledge that we have unconscious biases,” Scott said. “It’s part of how we process tons of information and part of our biology.”
SEMI Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
The SEMI Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team challenges organizations to start changing their narrative to account for unconscious bias. Learn how by following related work of the SEMI Foundation and participating in a crucial conversation.
Michael Hall is a marketing communications manager at SEMI.