November 16, 2021 8:01 PM EST

We’ve recommended Did That Just Happen?! by Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker and Dr. Lauren Wadsworth as a playbook for inclusive workplace practices, using interpersonal scenarios and scripted language.

Bias Interrupted, published on Nov. 16 by Joan C. Williams, is a strong complement, spelling out broader structural approaches for making workplaces more inclusive.

Williams, a professor and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, is critical of traditional approaches to bias training, in part because “you can’t change a culture by doing anything once, or just once a year.” (p. 3)

She argues that “achieving both diversity and inclusion can be done with the tools we have forged over more than a century to achieve any business goal: data, metrics, and persistence.” (p. 215.) Williams believes that it’s foolish to expect to solve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) shortcomings in one fell swoop. She suggests instead a series of smaller “one-percent changes” she calls “bias interrupters,” which are metrics-driven tools.

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The last five chapters of Bias Interrupted—and especially the final chapter directed at individual managers—offer a clear and convincing guide for how to systematically attack bias in your organization’s practices.

Williams’ six-six step protocol for doing so:

  • Give someone responsibility and resources to fix problems. “Typically, the issue is with your business systems, which are constantly transmitting well-documented forms of bias,” she writes, recommending that a chief diversity officer be given authority to audit hiring, performance evaluation, compensation, and access to plum assignments. (p. 151) Diversity committees can be even more effective, building the coalition for change.
  • Treat diversity as a business goal. This includes communicating how diverse businesses are more successful.
  • Establish metrics to measure progress, and hold people accountable for results. Hiring, promotion, and turnover are three areas to monitor. Clorox, for example, tracked each unit’s progress as red, yellow, or green in regular reports that went to top executives.
  • Tackle bias in human resources systems. This includes fixing problems in the hiring process, such as over-reliance on employee referrals or recruiting just from elite schools. Also, Williams recommends changing evaluation forms to detail the competencies being assessed and requiring ratings be backed by specific evidence—reducing some of the subjectivity. And parental leave should be given equally to men and women, so mothers aren’t stigmatized for taking it.
  • Assess and reward middle managers based on their contribution to disrupting bias. Middle managers are key to making sure change happens.
  • Restructure access to opportunity. Williams argues that the CEO has a unique ability to fix who gets access to the roles that can accelerate their careers. “By the time performance evaluations come along, for many people the jig is up. They didn’t get high-quality assignments, so they didn’t develop the competencies, visibility, and networks they need to progress,” she writes. (p. 166) One tactic is for executives to create “action learning teams” assembled from staff across the company who might otherwise be overlooked, to tackle specific business problems for a period of time.

Williams’ recommendations for individual managers include:

  • Define high-profile opportunities and keep track of who’s getting them. Bias tends to creep in when it comes to assigning plum roles, so it’s important to fix any inequities.
  • Set up a rotation for office housework or administrative tasks. This ensures that everyone shares in such lower-value work, which otherwise women are more likely to shoulder.
  • Give effective feedback. Develop a system for systematically giving feedback and tracking who you’re giving it to. Women and workers of color tend to get less actionable feedback. Review descriptions of common biases before doing performance reviews, which tends to result in fairer reviews.
  • Be respectful of people’s nonwork commitments. Schedule meetings during business hours, allow remote work, and don’t assume caregivers don’t want career-enhancing assignments.

The first half of Bias Interrupted is devoted to laying out the research showing how rampant bias is in the workplace and debunking some traditional objections to tackling it, like “we’re a meritocracy” and “isn’t it natural that people who work harder go further?” The short answer is that research shows resoundingly that biases mean that workplaces generally aren’t meritocracies. Among the many data that Williams cites are those indicating that half of employees of color and two-thirds of African-Americans experience racism at work. And, rewarding people for working long hours can backfire, as always-on work cultures undermine diversity goals and drive out many men as well.

Williams exhibits some impatience with “the diversity industrial complex” that provides DEI training and consulting to companies. She also contends that it’s important to consider ageism, classism, and bias against mothers as part of DEI efforts, which traditionally focus more on race and gender.

As for bias training, Williams says it’s most successful when it introduces participants to the research on bias and then asks them to envision and write down how they would interrupt bias in the future. It’s even more effective when people receive positive feedback from their peers alongside this.

To be sure:

  • The last few chapters are the most practically useful part of the book, while the first half doesn’t go into sufficient detail about the “bias interrupters” that people can employ.
  • Williams focuses a lot on the business case for more diverse and inclusive organizations, presenting data indicating that they’re more successful businesses and better at serving customers and retaining talent. But other research, cited by Robert Livingston in The Conversation, found that people feel less motivated when diversity is discussed in terms of the business advantages as opposed to just being a moral imperative.

Memorable anecdotes and facts:

  • Researchers sent out identical resumes with over 1,200 job applications, except that one version was modified to list membership in a parent-teacher association. That version was half as likely to get a call back for an interview.
  • In a separate study, a resume that listed polo as a hobby was 12 times more likely to get a call-back from an elite law firm than otherwise identical resumes with different hobbies.
  • Researchers found that women scientists needed to publish 20 more papers in science journals than men to receive the same competency rating.
  • A 2017 analysis found no decrease in racial discrimination against Black Americans since 1989.
  • Women typically participate 25% less than men in meetings that include more men than women.
  • The odds of hiring a person of color are 194 times greater if there are at least two among finalists for a job.

Choice quotes:

  • “We’ve all been looking for the grand gesture to solve the problem in one swoop. It doesn’t exist. What does exist is a series of one percent changes that, with persistence, can help root out the bias that too often subverts our ideas of meritocracy.” (p. 2)
  • “If your company had a problem with sales, you would not try to fix it by holding deep, since conversations about how much everyone values sales. You would not develop programming for Celebrate Sales Month. You would use basic business tools: evidence about what’s going wrong, and metrics to measure your progress in fixing it. We need to tackle DEI using the same tools.” (p. 3)
  • “In too many companies, white men of modest political talents can middle through, while women and people of color need to have superstar-level savvy to keep up.” (p. 71)
  • “‘I am slammed’ is a socially acceptable way of saying ‘I am important.” (p. 132)
  • “Men who have missed their children’s childhoods have a lot invested in believing that extreme schedules are the only way to get work done.” (p. 135)
  • “Homogeneity makes us lazy, while diversity makes us smarter.” (p. 158)

The bottom line is that Bias Interrupted is a useful handbook for tackling bias through a series of small changes to an organization’s practices.

You can pre-order Bias Interrupted at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We might make a commission if you order a book through these links.)

Watch Williams’ TEDx talk Why corporate diversity programs fail—and how small tweaks can have big impact.” Visit her Bias Interrupters site.

Read book briefings on Did That Just Happen?! and Just Work.

Read all of our book briefings here.

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