Reframing diversity through lessons on unconscious bias — Lily Chen

MIT Sloan MBA Candidate Lily Chen

MIT Sloan MBA Candidate Lily Chen

How much value is truly created by a room full of women gathering to talk about women’s issues when the problem is a systemic product of social biases held by both women and men? Do these almost exclusively female events further tie “women’s issues” to a certain social stigma?

As a member of MIT Sloan’s Society for Women in Management (SWIM) and former co-president of my undergraduate Society for Women in Business organization with heavy exposure to inclusive leadership and diversity training, I have attended my fair share of conferences and events geared towards women’s empowerment in business – an issue that I care deeply about. Each event has been inspiring both personally and professionally and has offered me phenomenal networking opportunities.

But I couldn’t help but wonder if the conferences I attended were involving the right set of people in the conversation towards driving real change.

Breaking the Mold, the annual capstone conference event hosted by SWIM that I helped to organize, aimed to shed light on the underlying socialized ideals we inevitably hold and ignite the conversation towards solutions for understanding and overcoming unconscious bias – the key in reframing diversity.

Breaking the Mold’s premise signals an evolution in how gender equality issues are being addressed, moving away from discussions on how women can navigate within a man’s world and more towards challenging the social model that we are primed to accept. This shift is a step in the right direction.

To me, breaking the mold is about (1) understanding that socialized unconscious biases mold our views and behaviors and (2) learning how to break them in decision-making. The question is not men vs. women, but really how we can collectively become better leaders, better partners, better mentors, and better mentees. The goal should thus be to get everyone more involved in the conversation and bring unconscious biases into mainstream consciousness.

Effective tactics that help eliminate unconscious bias have become more prevalent in professional offices as well. According to Barbara Mariniello, a Managing Director at Barclays and meritocracy panelist at the Breaking the Mold conference, Barclays redacted gender cues from resumes and saw a significant 25% increase in women hired the following year. This practice could be widely effective if it was industry standard.

Another meritocracy panelist, MIT Sloan Professor Emilio Castilla, also argued that transparency and accountability are most effective against bias. Without clearly defined cultural values and corporate policies that encourage constructive conflict in collaboration, there is room for unconscious bias. “Hiring for fit” can easily become an exercise of hiring people who are alike, rather than hiring for diverse people with similar values. To combat this natural human penchant for sameness in hiring decisions and team formations, transparent systems that knowingly address unconscious biases, such as redacting demographic information, and accountability to these practices can result in more balanced teams.

Mentorship is also seen as a key aspect of professional development and advancement.  Hemal Vaidya, principal at Deloitte and mentorship panelist, stated that mentoring relationships are particularly meaningful if both parties are comfortable with being vulnerable with each other and can share more than what is on their resumes. Acceptance of vulnerability in the workplace is a crucial piece that professionals often suppress for a forced image of strength. In reality, Sloan MBA ‘16 student Neha Thatte reasoned that showing humility in honest reflection and asking yourself questions like “How can I be a better mentee?” are productive towards becoming a better partner in the mentoring relationship.

Currently, diversity is widely championed in professional offices across the United States. Affinity groups are one of the cornerstones of workplace diversity initiatives. But are these groups truly promoting diversity? I would argue that affinity groups actually further polarize affiliate groups. Though affinity groups provide an important support network, the external image is of exclusivity and formalized separation. Just like conferences targeted only for women in business, affinity groups do not create an environment of true diversity and inclusion. How then can organizations best frame diversity to effectively reap its benefits?

The answer is clear: remove the stigma by inviting and involving everyone, not just exclusive groups according to affinity, in the conversation. Not everyone may be willing to come to the table and discuss diversity and unconscious bias issues at first, but inviting people of all backgrounds to pull up a chair and have a voice is a good start. Time and time again studies have proven that more diverse and gender-balanced teams in management are proven to perform better. This fact warrants training in working with diverse teams from an early age. Keith Bevans, partner at Bain & company and meritocracy panelist, noted that making diversity and inclusion normal here (in school) will make it normal in the workplace.

Breaking the Mold, a seminal conference for SWIM, succeeded in moving towards this goal of inclusion and involving more stakeholders in the conversation about unconscious bias. Over time, my hope is that these conversations and this inclusive mindset will help to redefine success in the lens of what we stand to gain from diversity. Until then, we need everyone talking about diversity with an open mind and in a collaborative effort. Once enough of our society is able to respect and address the reality of what drives unconscious bias, I think we will be truly closer to achieving equality.

Lily Chen is a 2016 MBA candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Chen was a part of the Sloan Women in Management’s (SWIM) Breaking the Mold conference operations team. Prior to Sloan, Lily worked in risk consulting for PricewaterhouseCoopers Advisory in New York City. At her undergraduate alma mater Cornell University, Lily was co-president of the Society for Women in Business as well as a Leadership Certificate Recipient for Business Opportunities for Leadership & Diversity, a program in diversity and inclusive leadership.


One thought on “Reframing diversity through lessons on unconscious bias — Lily Chen

  1. Embracing diversity particularly, gender diversity has been celebrated and worshiped diversity practice in all the Fortune 100 companies I have worked so far. I have myself been a diversity champion for my organization for the India chapter. I have initiated and ran couple of women mentorship programs for junior women managers at my company.
    Women need to accept the concept of masculinity as well. I have read a recent article in Economist on Anne Marie slaughter’s book. Women can have great careers as well as great family life balancing them both effectively.

    Accept life as it is. Take it as it comes. Women need to accept the fact that men can also stay at home, cook and take care of the children. If they can accept this, then there is gender equality.
    Nice article. I have bookmarked this page for future reference. Thank you again. Cheers, Ramkumar

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