If you've read my November Michigan Bar Journal article, you know how much I was looking forward to our Blind Spots diversity and inclusion seminar that took place Monday in Detroit. Our guest speaker was Kimberly Papillon - @KimPapillon on Twitter - a lawyer well-versed in the neuroscience of unconscious bias. In fact, she's so well-versed she trains justices, judges, lawyers and other professionals around the country on the subject. IMHO, Kimberly hit it out of the park with her presentation.
Unconscious bias reveals itself in many forms. Studies have shown, for example, there is a widespread perception that women have superior verbal but inferior math aptitudes and Asians have the opposite aptitudes. These perceptions persist even in the face of objective evidence - actual SAT scores - to the contrary. Physical characteristics also play a role: the larger the indentation at the bridge of one’s nose, the more negative the perception of the person’s trustworthiness. Someone’s dialect or accent determines how intelligent or friendly many of us think the person is (Southern drawls to 9-year-olds from both the South and North sound friendlier than Nebraskan speech, which they perceive as more ‘intelligent’).
Make yourself aware of your unconscious biases by taking the various word-association tests developed by Harvard and other research universities, but don’t take them all in one day! The time it takes to make the correct associations informs you how hard your amygdala is working to reprogram itself from biases that could have been formed when you were as young as 9 months old. Fortunately, your basal ganglia is there to help: it sends the message to the amygdala the ‘rules’ are changing.
Society promulgates unconscious biases, formerly known as stereotypes. Hollywood has done its fair share with the actors it casts for the parts of heroes and villains, particularly in cartoons. Don’t the villains often have Russian or German accents? And we may do it in our everyday lives when we ask someone if they speak English before hearing them utter a word. Messages like these are called “micro-aggressions” and can literally change our DNA to form new unconscious biases. Macro-aggression, such as the events of 9-11, can do the same. The stress associated with these aggressions can cause mental and physical health problems including harm to the internal organs.
How do we judge people in our law practices?
- Who we copy on important e-mails
- Who we invite to special events
- The quality of work assignments we hand out
What are we doing to raise our awareness of whether we are being fair when we make these types of decisions? A Massachusetts study concluded fairness in hiring for the ultra-competitive seats in symphony orchestras could be increased when auditions take place behind a screen and the path to the audition is carpeted to avoid the sound made by women’s high heels. This screening process requires the judges to focus solely on the music and not an individual’s physical characteristics, including gender.
We may judge candidates for internships and employment by their resumes and writing samples. Couldn’t we have an office administrator redact all racial and ethnic cues from these documents before the hiring committee reads them?
Speaking of writing samples, have you tried to list the qualities you like in written works? Try it. Then ask yourself which qualities can be objectively measured. If you are judging a candidate’s writing on subjective qualities, are you being fair? Could you empirically record how many good ideas someone had to counterbalance your subjective opinions? Simply asking yourself that question will help you make better decisions.
Sometimes our unconscious bias shows itself in our aversion to certain subjects. Are we choosing not to think about characteristics that make us uncomfortable? Averting our eyes? Walking away? Being aware of our actions helps retrain our brains.
Comments such as, “This person has potential, but…” or “I can’t believe this person actually went to that law school,” are a sign of unconscious bias. Again, just being aware of bias will help insure you don’t leave talent on the doorstep.
Before signing off, I want to update you on the two stories I mentioned in my November Bar Journal article. Ahmed received a full scholarship at a school in Qatar, so it's not just MacArthur High School’s loss, but our whole country's loss. The Alabama case ended in a second mistrial on Nov 4. Read more. The defense's opening remarks on the first day of the second trial blamed the victim for not speaking English. Read more.
As Kimberly Papillon said, “I’m growing every day.”
What a great mantra. What Kimberly taught us stung like a bee, but she educated us with the grace and beauty of a butterfly. I think most of us left her lecture feeling empowered to go out into the world and make a positive difference through our increased bias awareness.
Lori is a shareholder at Nichols, Sacks, Slank, Sendelbach, Buiteweg, & Solomon, P.C.