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Addressing unconscious bias at Breaking the Mold conference

“I think you need to work on being more demure,” read the bold, blue writing on the whiteboard.

Attributed to a conference attendee’s supervisor, it was just one of several examples of implicit bias shared anonymously at the Sloan Women in Management Breaking the Mold conference at the MIT Media Lab Feb. 6.

The annual conference attracted more than 250 attendees, including MIT students, staff, faculty, and students from neighboring schools. The daylong event marked the culmination of nearly six months of campus sessions designed to raise awareness of unconscious or implicit bias—defined as attitudes or stereotypes held at an unconscious level.

In her opening remarks, MIT Dean for Graduate Education Christine Ortiz shared some of her memories of being a young faculty member. Ortiz has been at MIT since 1999 and said she was lucky to find senior, tenured women who mentored her along the way.

“Since I came to MIT, women [have been] embedded throughout every aspect of academic life. I feel very lucky that all of the work that the women of MIT did before I arrived led to that,” she said.

In the fall of 2014, MIT had 2,055 women students enrolled as undergraduates—46 percent of the total student population. There are also 2,171 female graduate students, or 32 percent of that population, according to Ortiz. She said that the implicit bias theme is critical, because it affects the entire range of professional activities—recruitment, promotion, tenure, retention, graduation, and creating a climate of inclusion—at MIT.

“[A discussion of implicit bias] can be a difficult conversation,” Ortiz said. “Because it does require quite a bit of self-reflection. I’m so grateful this conference is providing the space for us to have those difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations and raise the awareness of the environment we all work in … so we can move forward, develop actionable strategies, and serve as catalysts for change.”

Breaking the mold

Jan Fields, the former president of McDonald’s USA and one of two keynote speakers, held herself up as an example of a woman who has followed a non-traditional path and overcome bias.

Fields, who had a 30-year-plus career at McDonald’s, recounted how she started working at her local McDonald’s when she was a young mom trying to put herself through college. The eighth of nine children in a family from Indiana, she was anxious to become a lawyer.

On her first day of work, she started off making the french fries—“the worst freaking job in the world”—and went home and cried to her husband. She rallied and went back the next day where she was placed at the front counter. Fields thrived on taking people’s food orders and kept getting promoted. And promoted again.

Fields said, “I kept telling them, ‘I’m only here for a short time. I’m going back to school.’”

Finally, after eight years in management, Fields found she was making more money than she would have had she pursued a law career.

“You never know the turns your life takes. I never would have thought of McDonald’s. My family was ashamed when I did it. They said, ‘You can do better than that.’ Now, they want to borrow money,” she laughed. During her career, Fields was named to lists of the most powerful women in business by both Forbes and Fortune.

At the end of her tenure in 2012, she was responsible for 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants.

Fields never did finish school, and said that she’s “not proud” of that. But, she said, “I got to a point where I wanted to show people that you don’t have to have that. You can actually make it with hard work.”

Fields told audience members—many of them MBA candidates—that even if they start their careers in more senior roles, they still need to learn as much as they can about every aspect of a company. “You don’t need to learn how to make french fries, but you do need to know how the money is made,” she said.

The conference also featured a keynote by Robin Chase, SM ’86, co-founder of Zipcar and founder of Buzzcar, as well as several panels including “Mentorship in the Workplace” and “The Role of Media in Creating and Breaking Stereotypes.” Anna T. Laszlo, the managing partner of Fair and Impartial Policing, LLC, gave a presentation on what policing can teach about navigating unconscious bias and walked attendees through several case studies.

Conference co-chair Maria Troein, MBA ’15, said she was “amazed” by the level of engagement and enthusiasm at the conference.

“I’ve lost track of how many people I talked to throughout the day who were at the conference not just because they care about equal opportunities for women, but because they want to manage the impact of unconscious bias regardless of the group or individual being impacted,” she said.

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