Unconsciously Biased

On March 2015, there were only four black CEOs in the Fortune 500 (that’s a measly 0.8%).

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The five black CEOs in the Fortune 500 on January 2015. From left to right, Kenneth Chenault of American Express, Delphi’s Rodney O’Neal, Merck’s Kenneth Frazier, Carnival’s Arnold W. Donald and Ursula Burns of Xerox.

Could there be an underlying reason why blacks are under-represented in leadership positions? One reason that we will focus on today is unconscious bias as explored through the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT was first introduced into the scientific publication community by Anthony Greenwald, Debbie McGhee, and Jordan Schwartz. These tests are computer-based association tests in which respondents are asked to answer questions as quickly as they can. They are meant to uncover people’s unconscious biases through the premise that humans make connections much more quickly between pairs of ideas that are already related in our minds, than between pairs of ideas that are unfamiliar to us or not as closely related in our minds.

One such test that relates to the issue of a disproportionate number of black – white CEOs is the ‘Race’ IAT. This test is meant to gauge a respondent’s preference when it comes to blacks and whites. Writer Malcolm Gladwell, a half black/half white U.S. Citizen, began the ‘Race’ IAT test by stating his belief that blacks and whites are equal races. Upon completion of the test, he found that he had an unconscious “moderate automatic preference for whites.” Now, this does not mean that he is a self-deprecating, racist black person. However, this does reveal the contrast between his unconscious psyche, and what he consciously chooses to believe (and stand for). Like Gladwell, many IAT takers have found that their unconscious biases were incompatible to their conscious beliefs. Over time, the ‘Race’ IAT has revealed that most Americans have an automatic preference for whites over blacks: a more surprising revelation was that nearly half of the 50,000 black respondents showed automatic preferences for white over black (“Blink”, Malcolm Gladwell).

What eventually makes up unconscious beliefs?

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E v e r y t h i n g!

Every single experience is filtered by the mind to form the unconscious opinion. All those movies with whites in leadership positions? Those have contributed to the strengthening of unconscious associations between whites and leadership positions. Binging on those Disney Princess Movies? Those have contributed to the formation of unconscious ideas about relationships! Playing Selena Gomez on repeat-peat-peat? Those go into the filter as well.

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The various IATs available will either reinforce conscious beliefs that you have chosen to uphold, or they will open your eyes to the underlying biases that you need to tackle. Don’t be scared!

As American Writer Patrick Rothfuss said, “Knowing your own ignorance is the first step to englightenment.”

In order to move forward, we must question existing stereotypes and social imbalances as they live within our own minds, and find solutions through continued conversations and education.

The Implicit Association Tests are located here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html

Some of the other IATs available:

  • ‘Light Skin – Dark Skin’
  • ‘Gay – Straight’
  • ‘Gender – Career’
  • ‘Young – Old’
  • ‘Arab Muslim- Other People’
  • ‘Weapons – Harmless Objects’

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