Breaking the Mold conference examines academic research on unconscious bias

MIT Sloan Women in Management event wraps up a year focusing on bias issue

February 11, 2016

Faculty from MIT Sloan and Harvard shared cutting-edge academic research on unconscious bias at the Breaking the Mold conference held Feb. 5 at the MIT Media Lab.The event, the second of two conferences organized by MIT Sloan Women in Management, highlighted how academics and researchers are thinking about unconscious bias, which is a positive or negative view that an individual holds on an unconscious level. Academics, as well as several industry representatives, presented their findings in a day combining research with networking and policy and strategy discussions.

Keynote speaker Iris Bohnet, professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of its Women and Public Policy program, studies implicit bias from a behavioral economics perspective. At the event, she presented several examples of how to prevent implicit bias, such as using gender-neutral language in job descriptions. “Unconscious bias is about good people like you and me not getting it right. This is not about changing mindsets,” Bohnet said. “It is about changing the environment. In fact, I’m going to argue that it’s easier to de-bias how we do things, than to de-bias our minds. Our focus really should be on de-biasing organizations in society.”

“Unconscious bias doesn’t just affect women. It affects all constituencies,” said Anita Wu, MBA ’16, (above, right) conference co-chair. Lakshmi Kannan, MBA ’16, also a conference co-chair, said, “We wanted to provide a space where we think beyond gender … and really ask the high-level question of what does principled, innovative leadership look like, and how does one build sustainable organizations that allow the employees to bring their full selves in.”

“We are trying to really shine the bright light of scientific method on these topics,” said MIT Sloan Professor and Associate Dean for Innovation Fiona Murray, who gave the conference’s opening remarks. Murray, along with MIT Sloan Professor Edward Roberts, has surveyed nearly 120,000 MIT Sloan alumni for the report on Entrepreneurship and Innovation at MIT. They have found that the rate of alumni who become entrepreneurs is increasing dramatically every year, but the rate at which women are becoming entrepreneurs is relatively stable, according to Murray. “That’s why this conference is so important today. What can we do next?” Murray asked.

Erin L. Kelly, MIT Sloan professor of work and organization studies, presented some of her research with the Work, Family, and Health Network, which is supported by the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control. In studying flexible schedules, researchers found that flexibility has typically been granted on an individual basis and limited to professional or managerial jobs. Those with lower education rates usually have less access to flexible arrangements. Statistics show that 20 percent of those with less than a high school degree have some schedule flexibility, compared to 40 percent of those with a college degree who do, and 51 percent of those with a graduate degree. A work-redesign approach can improve the health and well-being of employees and level the playing field for men and women of all ages seeking flexible work schedules, Kelly said.

Jocelene Kwan (above, left), a partner at McKinsey & Company, and Marie-Claude Nadeau, a manager at McKinsey, presented findings from the firm’s Women in the Workplace study of women in corporate America. The study was conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey.The study found that corporate America is moving slowly along the path to gender equality. Based on the rate of progress over the past several years, it will take more than 100 years to reach gender equality in the C-suite, said Nadeau and Kwan.

Bias is sometimes driven by a leader’s appearance and whether it is perceived as “babyish” or more mature-looking, said Robert Livingston, a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, whose research examines diversity, leadership, and social justice. Livingston discussed what he calls “The Teddy-Bear Effect,” or research that has shown that looking “baby-faced” causes bias against white men, but actually has the opposite effect for black men. Livingston explained that the effect can serve as a disarming mechanism that “makes [black men] seem more warm, more humble, and less threatening.”

Approximately 150 attendees were at the Breaking the Mold Conference which also provided the opportunity for informal discussion around important policies to reduce unconscious bias.