NYT best-selling author and Pulsely board advisor Taiye Selasi describes the need to confront systemic racism: “Compelling and helpful and brave though it is to examine individual beliefs, the real work of dismantling racism starts when we accept that the [false and inherited] logic [of racism], the structure, is at work regardless of what we believe.”
Selasi continues, “Racism is a lot like electricity. It’s always running. It’s always running in the house, powering the house, even when the lights aren’t on. So to examine in a moment an individual belief that’s informed by the logic of racism is helpful, necessary and commendable. Still, while we may abandon an individual belief, the electricity stays on.”
Systemic bias - like systemic racism - is pervasive even, or especially when, when nobody is talking about it being there.
How Systemic Bias Affects the Workplace
At an individual level, unconscious bias reflects the mental shortcuts - involved in perception, problem-solving and decision-making, that we each make all the time based upon our inherited social and cultural conditioning. Unconscious bias is faster than our values. It causes us to think and act in ways that reinforce stereotypical notions even when the behavior opposes our conscious value system.
According to Oxford Reference, systemic (institutional) bias is: A tendency for the procedures and practices of particular institutions to operate in ways which result in certain social groups being advantaged or favored and others being disadvantaged or devalued. This need not be the result of any conscious prejudice or discrimination but rather of the majority simply following existing rules or norms.
The Wiki definition is even more direct: the inherent tendency of a process to support particular outcomes.
In order to see how systemic bias is at play, look at outcomes. Prevalent systemic outcomes are a direct result of social systems that are designed to to support some more than others and are rooted in practices and beliefs in accord with that bias. Like systemic racism, systemic bias is a complex web of individual and internalized biases, interpersonal dynamics, embedded policies, practices and culture, as well as structural systems and norms.
Unlike overt sexism or racism, systemic bias - as Selasi illustrated - is operating behind everything whether anyone is paying attention. It’s how the system has been wired to work. It becomes part of organizational culture - an enduring collection of basic assumptions and ways of interpreting things that a given organization has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its internal and external influences, according to Cook Ross.
Systemic bias negatively affects individuals, groups, teams, organizations and society. It governs the basis of important decision making and has a profound impact on the workplace. It’s the pervasiveness, ambiguous and often invisible bias that is most detrimental. Systemic bias has a continuous and cumulative debilitating impact foremost on individuals in certain groups.
Systemic bias is weighing in strongly at every level in the workplace, including - and often even defining:
- Who gets considered and recruited for job openings
- How candidates are judged and evaluated
- How hiring decisions are made
- How much people are paid
- What kind of welcome and orientation new hires receive
- Who gets mentored, sponsored and opportunities to grow
- Who is considered for visible job assignments
- How individuals are evaluated in performance reviews
- Whether people are listened to attentively or interrupted
- How someone speaking emotively in a meeting is interpreted
- What people receive promotions and raises
- How networks are formed and who is included and excluded
- How organizational policy is developed
- How leaders are chosen, evaluated and perceived
Why Awareness is the Key to Addressing Systemic Bias
To begin to address systemic bias there are two levels of awareness - arguably both are necessary to creating change.
One is the basic awareness of what systemic bias is and the ability to acknowledge that it exists. It’s impossible to confront anything while also in denial of it. It’s an energy trap for any organization to get stuck at that level of negating the problem rather than moving towards solution space.
The second awareness that is so valuable is that systemic bias is fundamentally detrimental to everyone. Of course systemic bias hurts the groups that are disfavored by it. But it also hampers the individuals who are favored and sitting in the top seats. And it hurts the entire organization.
Why? Because as Jessica Nordell, author of The End of Bias: A Beginning points out, systemic bias arose from the premise that survival in nature depends upon competition and vying for limited resource. This is predicated on the paradigm of scarcity. In short: if you win, I lose. It proliferates a survival win-loss mentality.
But now scientists believe that almost every form of life depends on cooperation and mutually beneficial relationships. This is predicated on the paradigm of abundance. The world reflects to us that diversification is the key to life. In other words, we need the participation of everyone to thrive - organizations do, too. This is a win-win mentality. It also says: if you lose, I ultimately lose, too.
Additionally, organizations that continue to focus only on addressing unconscious or implicit bias at the individual level will miss entirely the systemic and structural issues (SSI) - the underlying wiring that perpetuates bias in the workplace. We have to zoom out and expand our awareness to look more clearly at the invisible wiring at play.
5 Ways to Be More Conscious About Systemic Bias
Here are five things your organization can do to become conscious about and start to address systemic bias:
1. Examine the “unexamined bias” of your organization. Nordell has found that much of the expression of bias actually resides in a space between conscious and unconscious, implicit and explicit. Framing bias as unexamined suggests action to help create awareness. If we have not put intentional attention towards something, we have not considered it. Organizations need to examine the bias they have not considered in their policies and practices and how to bring organizational behaviors more in alignment with values.
2. Measure the outcomes in your organization as evidence of systemic bias. Again, systemic outcomes are a result of systemic wiring. So if you want to be conscious of systemic bias, collect the real DEI data that explicitly demonstrates how bias is showing up as outcomes in your organization at every level. Lean towards finding out and addressing what contributes to those outcomes. Through equity and inclusion measures, your people will give you the more qualitative indications about how policies and practices are working to contribute. Qualitative experiences such as sharing stories and mutual mentoring will also bring systemic bias to life.
3. Be aware of history. Nordell points out that we are more willing to perceive present day systemic bias when we better understand the history of prejudice and discrimination and how it was actively applied - such as in housing segregation by the US government and how that’s led to racism in modern day housing and society. History also allows us to see where some of the beliefs so embedded in our culture (such as default male leadership) did not always exist or exist everywhere. Prejudice is created by culture and is a human invention. We have more power to rewrite the norms than we ascribe to ourselves.
4. Frame systemic bias as negatively impacting everyone. If individuals want to grow as people, they need to know that bias harms them, no matter who they are. It harms their ability to see the world clearly, their ability to understand and trust, their ability to develop meaningful connection across difference. As bell hooks effectively emphasized, nobody complicit in the oppression of another can self-actualize. The systemic bias in your organization is keeping your people and organization from being actualized, at an individual and collective level. It’s not just harming some. It’s harming everyone.
5 Follow through with new choices and approaches. The next level of becoming conscious about systemic bias is watching what happens when new choices and approaches are made. Make DEI data-informed insights actionable by implementing changes in how your organization is wired. Real changes have ripple effects. For example, even when leaders practice micro affirmations, they begin to create a positivity loop that can ultimately foster a more inclusive culture. Change the scaffolding of systemic bias and it will ultimately not stand within your organization. How will you know? Outcomes. And creating new outcomes begins to shift the notion of being subject or paralyzed by systemic bias. Small consistent shifts over time create big changes.