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Annual Sloan Women in Management conference examines unconscious bias

Police officers make split-second decisions with life or death consequences. Managers in the business world also make crucial choices, albeit usually without deadly results.

In both realms, a phenomenon known as implicit bias can often play a role. The Sloan Women in Management club, known on campus as SWIM, has designed its annual conference, this year dubbed “Breaking the Mold,” to explore the topic, following a series of related workshops and events during this past summer and fall.

Unlike explicit bias, implicit bias is a positive or negative view that an individual holds on an unconscious level. According to Project Implicit, a non-profit organization, implicit bias or implicit social cognition involves “thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control.”

“We think it [implicit bias] is one of the main barriers right now that keeps women from getting to higher positions in leadership,” said Elena Mendez, MBA ’15, who, along with Maria Troein, MBA ’15, is a conference co-chair.

Mendez said some people need time to understand the idea of implicit bias, which is one of the reasons why Sloan Women in Management sponsored and co-sponsored 10 “Breaking the Mold” events leading up to the conference. Professors Roberto Rigobon and Evan Apfelbaum both spoke at the kick-off event in September, where Apfelbaum shared his research on diversity in the workplace. A subsequent session addressed how men and women can work together to meet their goals for both work and family.

“This conference is very focused to be solutions-oriented,” Mendez said. “What we want to do is share and generate ideas for interventions that work to proactively manage unwanted consequences of implicit bias at both the individual level and the organizational level.”

“We wanted to engage more people, which is why we developed this strategy of having a number of events leading up to the conference,” Mendez said. “Throughout the summer, we talked to a lot of people at MIT and outside MIT … professors and those involved in diversity. They gave us a lot of ideas about how to engage as many people as possible in this conversation. One great piece of advice we got was that we needed to make it relevant for everybody, and, because this is MIT, we needed to show data on how implicit bias impacts outcomes on workforce diversity.”

Indeed, there is a science to implicit bias, according to Anna T. Laszlo, managing partner of Fair and Impartial Policing, LLC, who will be running an interactive workshop on “What Policing Can Teach Us about Navigating Unconscious Bias.”

For nearly a decade, Laszlo has conducted training programs for federal, state, and local law enforcement in addition to international training programs for criminal justice professionals. She has worked with many different law enforcement agencies including the Massachusetts State Police Academy, the Toronto Police Service, and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

Laszlo said implicit bias can manifest itself in many ways, even among well-intentioned people. Biases are often based on fact, but that doesn’t mean they should form the sole basis for a decision, she said.

“While bias in any profession can be detrimental … clearly no other profession has the very real risk of loss of life than in policing,” Laszlo said.

She noted that in the corporate world, implicit bias can impact hiring and promotion decisions. “When you are a manager, what if one of your direct reports comes to you and says, ‘You didn’t promote me because I’m Muslim … or I’m a female … or whatever.’ How do you respond to that?” asked Laszlo.

In her workshop, the first she will have conducted at a management school, Laszlo will present several case studies based on real situations, and participants will be asked to role play and discuss how the lessons they learn can be applied to the business world.

Other conference highlights include keynote speeches by Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase, SM ’86, and former McDonald’s president Jan Fields. There will also be a panel on “Beyond Quotas – Creating Truly Meritocratic Organizations,” which will explore research on promoting diversity in organizations and panelists will share what their companies are doing in this realm.

Mendez said men have always been welcome at the Sloan Women in Management conference, but in the past, very few attended. This year, the organizers made a conscious effort to include men.

“It’s important that we all work together to ensure real meritocracy that would lead to leadership groups that more closely reflect the composition of our society in terms of gender, race, and more,” Mendez said.

Shawn Basak, MBA ’16, said he got involved after attending the Breaking the Mold kick-off event in the fall. “Speaking with Sloanies who I knew, it seemed like a lot of the issues discussed in SWIM could be more generalized rather than just male-female issues,” he said.

Knowing that many men were interested in diversity, but perhaps reluctant to talk about it, Basak and the club organizers created a “Manbassador” program. One male student from each of the six MBA cohorts—known as oceans—served as an outreach ambassador to the rest of the students to encourage participation in the club’s events this fall.

Mendez said that the Breaking the Mold events have had, on average, nearly 40 percent male participation.

“It’s been working,” Basak agreed. “And as a result, all members engaged in this dialogue benefit when more perspectives are involved.”

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