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Bias interrupters, other tools urged to combat bias against women in workplace


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Bias interrupters, other tools urged to combat bias against women in workplace

By John Glynn

As an American neurobiologist, Ben A. Barnes knows firsthand the difference that being a man makes. Born Barbara Barres in 1955, Barnes has written that his research and work drew more accolades conducted under the name of a man than that a woman. And people, he has said, who were unaware of his transgendered status treated him with more professional respect as a man.


Panelists address the Midyear Meeting session “Why GOOD Guys — Guys Overcoming Obstacles to Diversity — Are So Important”

The experience of Barnes/Barres was recounted by workplace author and lawyer Joan C. Williams, who suggested it points to an implicit workplace bias in America that, “he’s skilled, she’s lucky.” A law professor at Hastings College of Law at the University of California in San Francisco, Williams kicked off Friday a two-hour program, “Why GOOD Guys — Guys Overcoming Obstacles to Diversity — Are So Important” at the ABA Midyear Meeting in San Diego.

“Women’s mistakes are noted more and remembered longer,” Willliams said, drawing from her 35 years of work captured in her 2014 book, “What Works for Women at Work,” which was co-authored with her daughter Rachel Dempsey.

Williams’ presentation, one of three segments of the program, laid out a multi-generational perspective of today’s workplace. Williams outlined not only how to spot implicit bias, but suggested approaches that detail how individuals and organizations can interrupt bias through a small change in a business process that affects the thinking of everyone involved.

She explained, for instance, that the first step is to determine if bias is playing out in everyday work interactions. Then a metric should be developed to measure the bias, followed by a “bias interrupter.” If the change does not improve the situation, “a stronger bias interrupter” should be injected into the situation.

Cognitive bias, generally considered a subjective bias drawn in an illogical fashion, remains “very, very strong” in the workplace, Williams said.

The following panel explored the importance of diversity in the workplace and the perils of implicit bias, particularly against women. Bill Sailer, senior vice president and legal counsel for Qualcomm, noted that research shows that “diverse groups do better than non-diverse groups” and that “when everybody is alike you are not going to get the robustness of thought and analysis than when everyone is not alike.”

Tom Sager, a partner at Ballard Spahr and former general counsel of DuPont, said “self-awareness” of implicit bias is the starting point for its reduction. Alan Bryan, senior associate general counsel for
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., urged the roughly 150 attendees – about a sixth of who were men – to “return to organizations and build coalitions.

“With women, that means it starts by reaching out to a man, and for men it means reaching out to a woman,” Bryan said. “Women, go in with an open heart and be candid with him. Men, yours is much easier. Listen, just listen. And then digest it. To do that, you are starting a dialogue and finding a partner.”

Irma Gonzalez, retired chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, said that diversity on the bench is “important to the decision making we bring to the table” and for women in law it continues to be “important to have good-guy mentors.”

In the final segment, Sheryl Axelrod, law firm owner and co-chair of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, offered an argument of why diversity pays off on the bottom line for firms and corporations. She detailed the percentage imbalance of men and women in various workplaces jobs, from legislatures to corporate boardrooms.

“Diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams,” she said, offering statistics to back up the assertion.

The program was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations, California Women Lawyers and the Lawyers Club of San Diego. The NCWBA has also developed an online toolkit to engage men as agents to change workplace bias.