Is Implicit Bias Bullying You Silent?

Back in the 70s Mary Rowe (a now-retired negotiation and conflict professor at Sloane/MIT) coined the term “micro-inequities” defined as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’"

Today, we call it implicit bias, and by far one of the most common questions we get from women in our courses and from our individual consulting clients is how to respond to the daily micro-inequities while also preserving relationships. Or keeping your job.

On Twitter last week an acquaintance asked, “What's the point of women become better communicators, stronger negotiators if [these micro-inequities] are still bullying us silent?”

Before I share my answer, we have to get good at recognizing these inequities. Here's a start (via Mary Rowe):

  • Checking emails or texting during a face-to-face conversation

  • Consistently mispronouncing a person's name

  • Interrupting a person mid-sentence

  • Making eye-contact only with males while talking to a group containing both males and females

  • Taking more questions from men than women

  • Confusing a person of a certain ethnicity with another person of the same ethnicity

  • Rolling your eyes

  • Sighing loudly

  • Raising your voice, even though the other person has no difficulties hearing you

  • Mentioning the achievements of some people at a meeting but not others whose achievements are equally relevant

  • Consistently ignoring a person's emails for no good reason

  • Only reading half of a person's email and then asking the person about the content later

  • Making jokes aimed at certain minority groups

  • Being completely unpredictable in your grading of certain people's term papers

  • Issuing invitations that are uncomfortable for certain groups (“Please feel free to bring your wife,” "There is a link below to childcare options for female speakers who plan to bring their children," “There will be a belly-dancer at the party,“ "Our annual Christmas party will be held on December 18,” "Please bring pork chops to the potluck dinner")

So once we recognize these inequities – as they happen to us – what can we do? Certainly organizational training is a good start, but even with a workplace commitment to stemming bias, we humans will continue to behave unconsciously. People say and do things that have the effect, as my Twitter friend said, of “bullying us silent.”

Here was my response, (expanded for clarity):

First, gain skills. Learn interest-based negotiation, which is grounded in conflict resolution strategies and tactics. These skills will help you move toward the problem, not away from it; resolving the conflict, not ignoring it and hoping it goes away. In other words, practice addressing the issue as it arises. Name the bias as it happens, and let your newfound skills of interest-based negotiation and conflict resolution take you the rest of the way.

I also recommend gathering allies – people who can speak up with and for you as the inequities occur—thus stemming the potential of the “bystander effect.”

You can learn this.