Implicit Bias: It Doesn’t Pass the Smell Test
Updated: Mar 1, 2022
Hold on to your hats. I’m going to tug on Superman’s cape; I’m going to pull the mask off the Lone Ranger. I might even make you mad.
Here it is:
“Implicit bias” and it’s offspring as they relate to being the scourges of diversity and inclusion issues is a lot of bunk. Claptrap. Twaddle.
It is, instead, an epidemic of “bias sensitivity” (or BS for short) that immediately sees intentional underhandedness in any instance whenever some demographic appears to be underrepresented in any endeavor. If the generic pronoun, “he” puts your day into a tailspin, you suffer from bias sensitivity. If you jump to conclusions that support your pre-conceived notions based only first appearances – without applying a modicum of critical thinking – you suffer from bias sensitivity.
Implicit bias has been all the social justice rage (both metaphorically and behaviorally) on university campuses and in many companies for some time. It has even fueled a pop-up industry of implicit bias consultants. Implicit bias (it’s also called “unconscious bias” and “positive prejudice”) is real, but many times such accusations fail the smell test when confronters launch into emotional tirades over the apparent lack of diversity and inclusion without the benefit of knowing all the facts. There are too many people seeing implicit bias behind every perceived imbalance or injustice when, in fact, other plausible explanations are readily available.
Case in Point
My very good friend Heidi serves on the board of directors of a large international association. She’s an intelligent, engaging, thoughtfully assertive, executive leader. The association has about a 54% to 46% balance of male members to female members, respectively, while the board is composed of six men and four women. Every year, a few complaints are voiced about the “lack of diversity and inclusion” on the board, implying an implicit bias is at work; specifically, the need for a more equitable “balance” of women (of all color).
Unbeknownst to the complainers, Heidi tells me, the association actively and consistently solicits nominations and applications from female members to serve on the board, as terms for current members expire. Yet few have stepped forward to accept the challenge. The first thing critics outside of the process see happening is implicit bias creating a lack of diversity and inclusion. But that’s a rush to judgment, because without more data and information, it’s just uninformed opinion. It’s the “tip of the iceberg” syndrome.
Heidi challenges the complainers on the spot to apply to become a board member, but few do.
“While we strive for a diverse representation of speakers, panelists, and facilitators at our conferences, we don’t control how many speaker proposals we receive and from whom. We select those proposals that offer the most informational or educational value for attendees as a priority. We are fortunate that we have very strong representation of women participants, and even have sessions earmarked for women speakers and attendees.
“When it comes to board positions, we aren’t just going to place anyone on the board to fulfill someone’s idea of inclusion and diversity or the person complaining the loudest. Our responsibility is to our members and the integrity of the association, and nearly all our members respect that position. We let our members decide who serves on the board once candidates have been qualified.”
Heidi states that she hears excuses such as, “oh, I don’t have the kind of experience or connections for a board position” or female members, when approached, back away waving their hands in a panic. Not every woman who is offered an opportunity willingly accepts it.
That’s OK. There are personal choices for reasons to which we are not privy; but it’s not by default, implicit bias.
Sometimes it’s just simple statistics
It’s the same sort of phenomenon seen when a male-dominated industry (engineering for example, at 86% male) is hit with implicit-bias charges because speakers at tech conferences are overwhelmingly male. This should be a common-sense realization that in a particular population (the engineering field), a sub-group that represents the majority (male engineers) means other sub-groups (female engineers) may likely be underrepresented as speakers at conferences.
Let’s not stop there; let’s ask more questions: How many of each sub-group submitted speaker proposals for consideration? How many of those proposals met the selection criteria by the speaker selection committee? The deeper you dive, the more of the iceberg you find below the surface.
Would an OB/GYN conference consisting of mostly female speakers be accused of harboring implicit bias against men, even though 86% of OB/GYN residents are female? Would a conference on coal mining consisting mostly of male speakers also be accused of implicit bias against women, even though 87% of workers in the coal mining industry are men? Why is Lewis Hamilton the only black Formula 1 driver? Is implicit bias at work here? It is common sense to think that men and women have made other career choices more aligned with preferences and talent or other factors, and not implicit bias lurking in the foreground.
What happens when people shirk personal responsibility
John Maxwell writes in How Successful People Win that shirking responsibility (blaming others for failure, blaming the system, blaming bias, etc.) leads to a pattern that exhibits these five characteristics:
People develop a victim mentality.
People have an unrealistic perspective of how life works.
People constantly engage in “blamestorming.”
People give away the choice to control their lives.
People eliminate any possibility of growth for success.
Such behavior is in the news every day. Heather MacDonald writes about these behaviors running amok in universities and technology companies (and the co-dependent apologists who lead them) in The Diversity Delusion and The Burden of Bad Ideas.
Leadership author and consultant Scott Llopis had a great article in Forbes on “5 Reasons Diversity and Inclusion Fails” (https://bit.ly/2lApusA). As Scott writes: “…most diversity and inclusion initiatives are developed to comply with corporate governance and self-regulation (often under the heading ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ or CSR)… when it comes to diversity and inclusion, the problem starts with using the word ‘problem.’ Diversity and inclusion should be about “opportunity” – specifically growth opportunity.” When diversity and inclusion are framed as a problem, they often are treated with a check-box mentality, implying that when all the boxes have been checked, the problem has been resolved.
Yes, the vision shift will help, but the biggest gains will come from people taking individual responsibility. Author Richard Bach, presaging the banter of implicit bias, once wrote: “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they are yours.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that researchers from Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison — including one of the founders of the Implicit Association Test, or IAT — had analyzed the results of hundreds of studies of the test involving almost 81,000 participants. They found that:
…the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought. They also conclude that there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior. These findings, they write, ‘produce a challenge for this area of research.’ https://bit.ly/2YWon4T
When implicit-bias proponents blame white males for making other conference attendees “uncomfortable” by simply being present at the same conference, it’s time to get off that train (read more about this at https://bit.ly/2lqVdfL).