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April 25, 2016 Asked and Answered

Want to stop bias in the workplace? Here are some constructive tips (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

Can you plan to prevent workplace bias before it starts? In some cases yes, says Joan Williams, the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at University of California Hastings. The ABA Journal’s Stephanie Francis Ward discusses with Williams tips on how to create what she calls “bias interrupters” to head off potential discrimination.

Podcast Transcript

Stephanie Francis Ward: Can you prevent workplace bias before it starts? In some cases yes, says Joan Williams, a law professor and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, she’ll be sharing observations on how we can create what she calls “bias interrupters” at work. Professor, welcome to the show.

Joan Williams: Delighted to be here. Thank you for the invitation.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Of course. Can you explain briefly for our listeners, what does bias interrupters mean?

Joan Williams: Bias interrupters are tweaks to an organization’s basic business systems. For example, sourcing, hiring, assignments, performance evaluations—that kind of thing. These tweaks are, in an evidence-based way, designed to interrupt the constant transmission of implicit bias in workplaces as we know them.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. Can you give us an example of a tweak?

Joan Williams: A very, very simple tweak: There was one experiment by two behavioral economists that simply added the words “salary negotiable” to a job ad and found that that two word difference both sharply decreased the difference in the numbers of men and women applying for the job and sharply decreased the salary differential at which people were hired for the job. The reason that that works is because you probably heard, “women don’t ask,” that women don’t negotiate as hard for starting salaries as men do. What you may not have heard is why that’s the case.

Women who do negotiate equally hard tend to be disliked and maybe less likely to be hired. So by putting in those two simple words, “salary negotiable,” an organization is signaling to women, “It’s OK to negotiate for starting salary here,” and they may also be thinking, “Gee, by extension, this sounds like a great job for me because I wouldn’t have to be constantly editing down my behavior in response to workplace gender bias.”

Stephanie Francis Ward: Oh, that’s interesting. So it can appeal to all sorts of different personality types with just the two words, right?

Joan Williams: Yeah, personality types, but also particularly the study showed that the women who negotiate often encounter backlash. They’re often penalized for negotiating, and those two words are signaling to women: “Hey, you’ll be able to negotiate just alongside the men. You won’t be penalized for negotiating here.”

Stephanie Francis Ward: That’s really interesting. Was there a moment—can you just kind of tell me—when did it occur to you? Is it something you’ve been thinking about for a long time? Did it pop into your head? How did you get this idea?

Joan Williams: Well, I wrote a book with my daughter, Rachel Dempsey, who actually now is clerking for the 9th circuit. This is before she went to law school. It’s called What Works for Women at Work, and we wrote the book because I was looking back over the past 30 years. When I started to work on women in the legal profession, 15 percent of law firm partners were women. As we speak today, 17 percent of equity partners are women, so that’s not much progress.

About five years ago, I’d basically given up on organizational change, and so we wrote this book that shows women how to navigate successfully through workplaces shaped by subtle gender bias.

But then I was talking to my editor at the Harvard Business Review after we had finished the book, and she urged me to take the analysis that underlies What Works for Women at Work and turn it into an organizational change model, and that’s what gave rise to the bias interrupters approach.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. I was curious as well—I think with the numbers that you just mentioned, it’s not a secret that women, for the most part, were not given the same opportunities in the work environment as men.

It seems like everyone admits it’s a problem, but few people will admit that they’re part of the problem or that they might have some gender bias. In some ways, bias interrupters is that idea that—is a way to maybe gently work around people’s biases and perhaps prevent issues before they come up?

Joan Williams: Yeah. What Works for Women at Work provides women ways to navigate around and through people’s gender biases.

Bias interrupters are very different. Bias interrupters involve change to a hiring ad or an interview protocol or a performance-evaluation system that is designed in a science-based way to interrupt gender bias.

So let me give you an example. We’re just about to launch a web page, The Bias Interrupters, and we’re starting out with materials on performance evaluations. So we have various resources. They’re going to be open sourced for organizations. One of them is a handout that organizations can hand out to anyone who is asked to write a self-evaluation.

Now, remember how women don’t ask, they don’t negotiate as much men? They also don’t self-promote as much as men, and the reason that they don’t is because they sense gender bias in the environment. The studies show that women who engage in self-promotion often encounter prescriptive bias because women are expected to be modest, self-effacing team players. Men are expected to be competitive and ambitious.

So if a man is self-promoting, he’s fitting into people’s stereotype of the way a man should behave: competitive and ambitious. But if a woman is self-promoting, she is flouting people’s stereotype of the way a good woman should behave: modest, self-effacing team player.

So if you simply ask people to provide performance self-evaluations, it’s not unlikely—what’s probably gonna happen is that the women are going to provide much more modest self-evaluations than the men. This is a simple two-pager you can hand out to give everybody guidance about the proper way to fill out a self-evaluation.

By the way, that particular bias interrupter can be expected not only to help women, but also Asian-Americans and class migrants, people born from nonprofessional families who have now become lawyers, for example. There are very strong modesty mandates, not only for women, but also for Asian-Americans. And in blue-collar families, there are also strong modesty mandates. So that’s a good example of how you can provide a fairly gentle tweak to an organizational system that holds the promise to interrupt transmission of implicit bias.

Stephanie Francis Ward: So could you see a good manager getting one of these self-assessments and giving it back to the person saying, “You know, you didn’t say enough about all these great things you’ve done. You need to write more good things about yourself”?

Joan Williams: This is not posted on the web, but it will be in a month, and I think, at this point, a good manager would simply hand out this sheet to everybody along with the self-evaluation forms and say, “Here’s some important tips on how to fill out a good self-evaluation.”

Stephanie Francis Ward: I see.

Joan Williams: I formed a working group where I brought together 20 social scientists with seven companies, and we are in the process of conducting experiments to pilot specific bias interrupters, and we’re also in the process of building out concrete tools that managers and others can use in order to redesign basic business processes, tweaking them to interrupt the constant transmission of bias.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. How is the legal profession responding to your work on this so far?

Joan Williams: Well, Michelle Coleman Mayes, who’s the current head of the ABA Commission on Women [in the Profession] got very fascinated by this idea and approached me. Actually, we’re just about to launch a survey of lawyers co-sponsored by WorkLife Law, my organization, the ABA Commission on Women, and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, because when WorkLife Law works on implicit bias, we never only do gender. We always do bias based on race and a variety of factors.

We’re just about to launch a survey to be given to lawyers to help pinpoint specific ways in which the four patterns of gender bias that have been documented over and over again and the accompanying racial and other bias, the way those very specific patterns are playing out both in-house and in law firms. We have put together those three organizations, the bias interrupters and a legal profession working group that will be generating very, very concrete tools and best practices for interrupting implicit bias in the legal profession.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I know that sometimes it seems like when you talk about—maybe not stereotypes. As you said there are certain things that are expected in the workplace for women. I’m wondering, do you ever get pushback from people that say, “If you’re going from that premises, you’re just encouraging stereotypes.”

That seems kinda silly to me because we know that these expectations are there and they’re very hard to get around, but I’m wondering if sometimes people say, “Well, I like to negotiate and I’m a woman. Don’t put something out there that says I don’t.” Do you get much pushback on that?

Joan Williams: All of these are tendencies that have been very well documented in not one but in a whole huge literature that’s 30 years old, so these gender biases, the different behaviors that women as a group often exhibit from men as a group—first of all, these are group differences, so they’re tendencies, not absolutes. But these tendencies have been adopted over and over again.

Of course, there’s some women who are just gonna go in there, and then they’re gonna negotiate as hard as they can, and sometimes that will work out great. And sometimes they won’t be hired because they’re seen as somebody that you wouldn’t want to work with. In a context—I sometimes call this the “she’s a shameless self-promoter; he knows his own worth.” So we’re not gonna make these biases and stereotypes go away by pretending they don’t exist. That said, they describe tendencies, not absolutes.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Right. For people, especially lawyers who are in a position of power to help, what are your thoughts on convincing them what they can do with this and do it in a way that’s meaningful?

Joan Williams: Well, that’s the whole point of the bias interrupters effort. At WorkLife Law, we run a membership program for organizations called Women’s Leadership Edge, and we have a lot of tools that are available through Women’s Leadership Edge, including what’s called the Bias Interrupters for Managers’ workshop. That workshop introduces people to the four patterns of bias and gives them very, very concrete, low-key ways in which individual contributors and managers can interrupt very commonly documented patterns of bias.

Let me give you an example. A very, very common experience among professional women is what my co-author Rachel and I call “the stolen idea,” and that’s when a woman will offer a suggestion in a meeting that will be kind of overlooked, and a man will repeat it, and suddenly, it’s brilliant, and he’s given credit for it. When I talk to audiences of women, typically about two-thirds of them report that this has happened to them.

So if that’s happened and you’re running the meeting, how can you interrupt that pattern? You can say—and again in a very low-key way, you can say, quite simply, “Tim, I’m so glad you picked up on Rebecca’s idea. You’ve added something important. Maybe here’s the next step,” and give Rebecca the opportunity to jump back in, and also, just in a low-key way, without embarrassing anyone, pointing out that the idea, initially, was Rebecca’s idea.

Where people have used this strategy after attending the Bias Interrupters for Managers workshop, what can happen is that if lots of people are using this, magically, that stolen idea pattern begins to whither away. So, that’s a good example of what we call “individual interrupters” that anyone can use just in your daily travels without spending too much political capital.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you find when you’re out working to share this idea with people, are there times when you speak with a guy who runs a law firm and he says, “I’ve heard about this, and I know it’s a problem, but I have to say, I just don’t see it here.” Do you hear that? And if so, what’s your response?

Joan Williams: Well, the power of the Bias Interrupters for Managers training, which is the workshop that’s designed for an audience of mixed men and women, is that it readily becomes apparent that some of these patterns have been experienced by women in the organization.

For example, I was working with one large law firm, and what I do is I introduce a pattern of bias and then a specific example of—give them example of the stolen idea—and then I stop and have people brainstorm how they can interrupt that pattern of bias in a table of six or eight. If you’ve composed the tables carefully, it’s going to be quite likely that someone at the table has actually had that experience and provides that real-time feedback.

Sometimes nobody will have had the experience, and in some contexts, maybe that’s just not important kind of workplace interaction. These patterns of bias are extremely pervasive, but only 11 percent of the women I interviewed reported all four patterns of bias. Now, 96 percent of the women reported having encountered one or more, but these biases play out quite differently in different organizational contexts.

One of the things we’re actually also just about to launch is an inclusion survey that organizations can use to pinpoint how, if at all, racial and gender bias is playing out in their organization as an analytical tool along with next steps for how to interrupt bias in those specific contexts.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Interesting. Do you think, perhaps, in the past decade, there’s been a bit of a cultural shift with how we address workplace bias? It seems like at one point we might have said, “When you do that that seems very racist or sexist or homophobic.” I almost wonder if what’s being done now is perhaps a more kinder and gentler way to—maybe not even confront—but draw attention to this and get people to behave in a different way so they’re not called out on it, but they’re maybe gently pointed out that this could be an issue.

Joan Williams: Well, I think the standard tool kit for the last 10 years has been to found a woman’s initiative or an employee resource group and provide additional resources to the diverse professionals. That’s a useful step, but if you have a very disproportionally low number of women or people of color high up in your organization, probably it’s because subtle forms of bias are constantly being transmitted through everyday workplace interactions. And so fixing the women or the diverse professionals is just nonresponsive. What needs to be fixed is the business system, and that’s what bias interrupters do.

Now, I think if you’re talking to individual contributors in a mixed group of men or women, people of color and whites, what you’re going to want to be giving people—I mean, there’s two theories here. One is Google’s, and Google has a “if you see it, call it out” model.

My assessment is that may work for Google, but in most environments—and certainly, most legal environments—people have a limited amount of political capital, and they really are not gonna be enthusiastic—most of them—about spending huge amounts of political capital calling out bias in a direct and perhaps harsh manner. That’s just not practical.

People have to husband their political capital in order to accomplish a lot of diverse career goals, and that’s why, in this particular context, where you’re talking not about organizational interrupters, about redesigning basic business systems, but about individual interrupters, things that individuals can do to interrupt bias. I think the focus is on very mild-mannered sort of interventions.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And you mentioned the book you wrote with your daughter, What Works for Women at Work. Your daughter is a millennial, and I’m curious, are you finding that women in her age group, are they encountering different issues of gender discrimination than the generations before them? And if so, what are some of those things, do you think? What has changed, if anything?

Joan Williams: Unfortunately, I think these things have changed remarkably little. That’s why I wrote What Works for Women at Work. I’ll just give you one example from when Rachel was in law school, and she just graduated last year. She was at Yale Law School, and one of the professors said, “Let’s form groups and have volunteers to take notes for each class so that when people cannot attend the class, they’ll have the notes,” and everybody said, “Oh, nifty-keen, let’s do that.”

And then the professor sent around a signup sheet for who was going to sign up to be a note taker and scrub up their notes and make them available to the whole class, and when the sheet came around to Rachel, virtually all of the women had signed up, and virtually none of the men.

Now, why is that? It’s because the good woman is a modest, self-effacing, helpful team player. The women were under informal pressures to sign up. The man to be reckoned with is competitive and ambitious. The men were under no informal pressures to sign up.

Unfortunately, what has been documented over and over again is that these stereotypes are extremely resilient, and they are not changing, sad to say. That’s why it’s really important that organizations begin to redesign their business systems to start to correct for these stereotypes. If that became a widespread model, then the stereotypes would begin to change for the simple reason that they wouldn’t be constantly being transmitted in everyday workplace interaction.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. I’m curious, with your background, how have you gone about teaching your daughter through the years not to sign up to be the class wife or whatever. You’re right. A lot of times, we are rewarded—if you can call it that—for doing that sort of work. How do you teach a child to say no and not get too much pushback about it, to say no in a meaningful way?

Joan Williams: Well, I think that’s a delicate issue. I didn’t have to teach Rachel that.

Stephanie Francis Ward: [laughs] You did your job.

Joan Williams: A similar situation that is extraordinarily common in law firms is that women end up—and you used the phrase yourself. Rachel coined the term “doing the office housework.” The office housework is everything from doing administrative work, being the one to schedule the meeting, find a room, doing literal housework, ordering the lunch, doing emotion work, “She’s really upset. Can you fix it?” Or doing undervalued work.

For example, I was talking to a woman litigator in Silicon Valley in a well-known corporate firm, and I said, “Hey, do women in your firm do the office housework?”

She immediately knew what I meant, and she said, “You bet we do. We do the task lists and manage the paralegals. The men argue the motions and they talk with clients.” That’s a good example of an office housework phenomenon.

Now, one of the things I think is confusing to young women is that often they are praised to the skies for doing the office housework, because it’s extremely convenient for everybody else to have them doing this dead-end work. So I think it can be very confusing, and young women need to recognize—and we tell them all the time through Women’s Leadership Edge and otherwise—that even if you’re being praised, you have to figure out whether what you are doing is the kind of thing that people actually get promoted to partner for, because no one is going to pay you $800.00 an hour for doing a lot of these office housework tasks.

What we find time and again is that, of course, all junior lawyers have to do some of these tasks in the early years, and doing them efficiently and graciously is extraordinarily important. But what we hear time and again is that men naturally get moved out of those tasks. After all, the perception is they’re naturally competitive and ambitious, so of course you need to give him something that would represent a step up the ladder. Whereas women are often conceptualized as, “Oh, well, she’s not ambitious. Her husband is out there. He could support her. Women aren’t that ambitious.”

Meanwhile, the woman is maybe not negotiating as hard to get some of these career-enhancing assignments, and the reason they aren’t is because the men don’t have to negotiate. The assignments often happen to gravitate naturally towards the man. If the women try to be insistent, it’s often seen as evidence that they’re very demanding or otherwise have a personality problem.

But I think that it’s very important to coach women to make sure that they’re going out and getting career-enhancing assignments. Unfortunately, often they have to walk a pretty narrow tightrope between being seen as too demanding and, therefore, unlikeable; or being seen as somebody who only has pretty low-level skills, and, therefore, not competent. What Works for Women at Work gives women strategies in that kind of context.

Of course, the real answer is to have firms having work-allocation systems that don’t constantly replicate this pattern of women doing the undervalued work and the office housework and the behind-the-scenes work and the routine work, whereas men naturally get career-enhancing assignments. That’s where we need bias interrupters in assignments, and that’s actually going to be the next series of web pages that we unveil. That will probably be in two or three months.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I was gonna say, and that sounds like a great way to do the bias interruption is have—really think about who you assign the task to in a way that doesn’t discriminate.

Joan Williams: With respect, that’s an extremely individualistic model. I think what you’re talking about is redesigning organizational systems so that they don’t inadvertently provide an invisible escalator for a certain group.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Alright, that’s everything I had for you today. Did you want to add anything else?

Joan Williams: No. Thank you for your interest!

Stephanie Francis Ward: Of course. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and you’ve been listening to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.

End of transcript

Updated on April 28 to add transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Joan C. Williams is a feminist legal scholar based at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, focusing on workplace gender bias. She’s also the founding director of the school’s Center for WorkLife Law.