Apparently, when I impersonate conservatives, I do it with a southern US accent (e.g., “‘Merica!”, “Don’t mess with Texas!”, etc.). I don’t intentionally adopt the accent. In fact, I never even knew I was doing it until my partner pointed it out to me! Without my partner’s third-person perspective, I might never have noticed. I might have just continued mocking people with southern accents. In fact, that wouldn’t be surprising given what we learned in this series [Part 1 – Part 5]. So if we want to do something about our biases, then we would do well to seek this kind of third-personal feedback. Let’s call it bias feedback.
The bias feedback I received from my partner can be characterized as bottom-up and informal. Bottom up because it came from a peer rather than from a position of authority. And informal because it happened freely in ordinary conversation rather than as part of some kind of compulsory process. Many people are uncomfortable with informal, bottom-up feedback. So if informal, bottom-up feedback is to be accepted in some contexts, then it might have to be integrated into that context’s culture. There might be a few ways to do this.
Open yourself to feedback
Many behaviors, habits, decisions, and institutional processes are hidden from the public, so they simply can’t benefit from others’ perspective. So if you want to benefit from bias feedback, then you have to create opportunities for feedback — ideally from people that are very different from you. After all, people who share all of your biases won’t be any more likely to notice your biases than you will. So, for example, if you are on a selection committee, then you could make the entire selection process and selection data available to the public. If there are opportunities to improve the process, people will quickly spot them for you.
Some people feel sheepish giving unsolicited bias feedback. They need to be prompted. So prompt them. For example, if you are a conference organizer, then solicit anonymous bias feedback from participants. And be specific with your questions. E.g., On a scale of 1-10 how well did this conference do to include underrepresented academics? What might the conference organizers do to make the conference more inclusive?
Take feedback well
When someone gives you bias feedback — solicited or not — take it to heart. Pay attention to the details of their observations. Ask for clarification if necessary.
Use the feedback
What do you do with bias feedback? First, you think about how to adjust your behavior, decisions, processes, etc. Then you make a plan to implement these adjustments. And then you do something to force yourself to follow through on the plan. You should do all of this ASAP. For instance, if you’re a teacher and someone points out that you assign material from only white men, then find material from a more diverse group of people (right away) and update your syllabus (right away) so that it’s ready to go next time you teach the class.
Thank the people who give you bias feedback. Buy them lunch. Give them all the cash in your pocket. Promote them. Do something to make feedback experiences positive. Remember, the point is to help people become more comfortable giving feedback.
Now let’s say you’ve already got this culture of bias feedback in place. What do you do when you notice obvious instances of bias?
The bottom-up approach
My advice is short and sweet: when you notice it, address it. Exactly how to best do this will obviously depend on context. It may or may not be best to address the situation immediately. It may or may not be best to address the situation publicly. It may or may not be best to address the situation directly. But you can probably figure out a sensible course of action. Here are some basics.
Take note. Let’s say you notice me repeatedly not call on females when I am fielding questions after a presentation. Jot down your observation. And consider relaying your observation to me directly. Why? Well, your bias feedback might help me become more self-aware. That might help me realize that I need to institute preemptive measures (e.g., have someone else field questions for me).
Be persistent. Now imagine that I respond to your feedback with indifference and you continue to see me selectively disregard women. Keep documenting my behavior. If you notice tangible negative effects of my behavior, include that in your documentation. Now present the additional documentation to me.
The top-down approach
Let’s say you’ve documented my behavior and given me bias feedback a few times and I am still overtly resistant; it’s pretty clear that I don’t care about the potential harm of bias. This is a sign that the bottom-up approach isn’t going to be effective.
Seeking Top-down Feedback. In this situation, you might need to take your documentation to someone with the power or positioning to use top-down feedback mechanisms (e.g., changing incentive structures, giving feedback from a position of authority, etc.). If you seek top-down feedback for my behavior, then feel free to tell me. After all, that might be all I need to realize the gravity of the situation.
Giving Top-down Feedback. Imagine that you’re in a senior-level/supervisory position and someone brings you this documentation about my pernicious biases. Because of your senior status and/or power, you are uniquely able to do something about my damaging behavior (e.g., you have the power to adjust incentive structures, give feedback from a position of authority, etc.). Whether you are responsible for doing something about my behavior might be complicated (…then again it might not be). If you’re not sure what to do, then think about what your position commits you to doing. If it’s still not clear, then think about what the people with less power — especially the victims of the biased behavior — might need you to do. Whatever you do, don’t just dismiss or ignore the problem.
Until we enjoy bias feedback, we might be stuck with biased behavior. So when people give us feedback about our biases or other peoples’ biases, they’re doing us a favor. Heck, they’re doing everyone a favor. So there are good reasons to create opportunities for feedback — to invite it, take it well, use it, and reward it. And sometimes there are good reasons to seek top-down feedback.
Part 1: I talk about the anxiety I had about being implicitly biased. “Am I discriminating without even knowing it?! How do I stop?!”
Part 2: What is implicit bias? Check out this post to learn about the theory and some of the findings.
Part 3: What are the real-world consequences of implicit bias? Research suggests implicit bias can impact hiring, pay, promotions, and more.
Part 4: What can we do about implicit bias? The research on de-biasing suggests a few strategies for limiting biased judgments and behavior. Spoiler: many people and institutions aren’t using these strategies.
Image: “Stuck In The Mud 2” (public domain) via Wikipedia