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How to pull the mask off your biases

Whether we want to admit it or not, everyone has biases — they are ubiquitous and part of the human condition. But we can counteract bias to change how we see and interact with others, personally and professionally.

That was the message of the webinar “Implicit Bias 101,” sponsored by the ABA Career Center. The presentation focused on how to increase our own awareness of the unconscious biases we each hold, and strategies to address those preconceptions.

Presenters were David Hoffman, a founding member of the Boston Law Collaborative LLC, a law firm devoted to conflict resolution and the practice of collaborative law; Audrey Lee, executive director of the BLC Institute, the mediation training and coaching arm of the Boston Law Collaborative; and Matt Thompson, an affiliate of BLC Institute.

Implicit bias includes both stereotypes (traits or characteristics associated with a category) and attitudes (evaluative feelings that are both positive and negative). “This is part of all of us,” Lee said. “It’s part of our human condition and something that we all carry.”

People have “mental shortcuts” that were inherited from our ancestors who had to survive in a hostile environment. “It’s how we’re hardwired,” Hoffman said. “The problem with stereotypes is that they can lead us to overgeneralize” about a group of people.

Stereotypes can show up as microaggressions — the brief and commonplace verbal, nonverbal, behavioral and environmental indignities based on race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability or other characteristics. Lee, who is Asian, gave an example of one by sharing a personal experience of how a neighbor she had never met assumed she was a Chinese-takeout delivery person because of her appearance.

Although we each have unconscious biases, there are ways we can reduce them. Some tips from the presenters:

  1. Raise your own awareness of bias. The nonprofit Project Implicit offers several tests to assess attitudes about race, gender, age, religion and more. Also, group exercises such as the Opportunity Walk — in which participants recognize through a series of questions how power and privilege have affected their lives, even if they are unaware of it. People who work together find out that the “distance that they may have between each other can be pretty dramatic and compelling as to where they started out in life,” Thompson said.
  2. Practice stereotype replacement. Imagine others in a positive light and replace stereotypes with positive examples.
  3. Increase opportunities to interact with others. Expand your circle to include people different from you (age, race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) and get to know them as individuals.
  4. Do some perspective taking. Learn about other cultures and people through books and films produced by them to see the world through their eyes.

“Of course, we have bias,” Hoffman said. “That’s our thumbprint and the thumbprint of society. But bias is malleable.”  

Beating bias in the workplace

While it pays to work on our own personal biases, it is also worthwhile to consider ways to counteract bias in our workplaces. Diversity expert Matt Thompson and attorney David Hoffman of the Boston Law Collaborative highlight ways to do just that at your organization:

  • Identify egalitarian goals. “Ideally, what would you like your workplace to be like?” Thompson said. Set mutually agreed upon goals with colleagues.
  • Highlight common identities. Talk about the ways you and your colleagues are alike.
  • Identify and consciously acknowledge real group and individual differences. Don’t hide from your differences. Many people like to say that they don’t pay attention to skin color, Thompson said. “But yes, you do see color. It’s part of our identity. To say [the differences] aren’t there just doesn’t work.”
  • Involve multiple people in decision-making. “Getting as many and varied voices can enhance decisions that are made,” Thompson said. “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts when you pull people together. It’s a blessing in disguise.”
  • Mindfulness. Identify the sources of distraction and/or stress in decision-making. What are the things that can keep you from making the best decisions?
  • Feedback and accountability measures. Keeping track of diversity in the workplace can help change things, Hoffman said. Examples: The National Football League adopted the Rooney Rule, which influenced the hiring of minorities for head coaching and senior operations jobs; and the Mansfield Rule, in which participating law firms consider at least 30% women, LGBTQ+ and minority lawyers for significant leadership roles. 
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