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Does awareness of discrimination make it more pervasive?

The New York Times recently published a piece written by respected author and businesswoman Sheryl Sandberg and professor Adam Grant. In the piece, the authors explore recent efforts made by individuals within the media, academia and business industry to raise awareness about bias within the workplace. And they ask the intriguing question of whether or not efforts to raise awareness of the presence of bias in the workplace actually backfires upon the intention of reducing bias itself.

Gender stereotyping and other cultural factors often lead individuals to become unconsciously biased against others on account of their race, gender, sexual orientation or other personal classifications. This unconscious bias can lead to employment discrimination, which is generally illegal. Many individuals who engage in discriminatory behaviors may not be aware of the biases informing their actions.

Efforts to raise bias awareness are generally good intentioned. However, recently released research suggests that these efforts may inspire individuals to discriminate more freely, rather than work to eliminate their biases. That conclusion seems completely counterintuitive. However, the authors of this new research have concluded that under certain circumstances, managers who have been made aware of their biases either discriminate at the same level they did before or do so more often.

This research is based on controlled experiments and is very specific in its scope. However, it does provide food for thought. Employers must be very careful not only to become aware of their biases, but also not to allow their biases to control their actions until they are corrected.

Source: New York Times, “When Talking About Bias Backfires,” Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg, Dec. 6, 2014

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