Incremental steps that improve diversity in your organization can yield large gains. Diverse work groups perform better and are more committed, innovative, and loyal.
It’s time to go beyond just talking about the problem of workplace bias. Bias Interrupters is an evidence-based model that provides solutions. By taking small steps, Bias Interrupters can yield big changes.
We’ve distilled the huge literature on bias into simple steps that help you and your company perform better.
Having expertise increases men’s influence—but decreases women’s.1 This is just one way subtle biases play out in meetings.
Research also shows that men interrupt women, more than vice versa.2 And across industries, women in our studies consistently report that someone has gotten the credit for an idea they originally posed. In our survey of architects, half of women of color and white women reported having their ideas stolen, compared to less than a third of white men and men of color. Multiracial women reported an even worse experience: almost two-thirds reported that they had an idea stolen.3
If companies don’t prevent bias from playing out in meetings, they may lose the talent and insight they pay for—or even encounter safety risks. We heard from one scientist in a workplace that handled dangerous materials that she was sharply criticized as aggressive when she brought up a flaw in a male colleague’s analysis. After that, she took to “bringing in baked goods and being agreeable” — but at what cost?
In addition, bias within in-person meetings may also translate to and be exacerbated by virtual meetings.4
1) Identify the source of bias.
2) Implement Bias Interrupters in both in-person and virtual meetings, detailed in the drop-down menu below.
Options for finding out whether you have a problem are listed from least to most time-consuming.
1) Employ new technologies: GenderEQ is an app that analyzes the ratio of men and women’s speaking time.
2) Use our free 2-minute downloadable survey to assess bias issues.
3) Appoint a Bias Interrupter to gather metrics over the course of several meetings. Metrics to gather:
· Floor Time: Who mostly speaks at meetings? Is it representative of who attends?
· Interruptions: Is there a culture of interrupting in your meetings? If so, is there a demographic pattern in who does the interrupting and who gets interrupted?
· Stolen Idea: Research shows that women and people of color report that others get credit for ideas they originally offered much more than white men do. Keep track of who gets credit for ideas offered and who originated them.
· Attendees: Are the right people getting invited? Be sure everyone who has a part to play is at the meeting.
· Ideas: Whose contributions get lauded or implemented?
· Office housework: Track who takes the notes, who keeps the minutes, who gets coffee, and other office housework tasks.
· Meeting scheduling: Are meetings scheduled at times or at locations that make it difficult or impossible for parents and caregivers to attend?
Because every organization is different, not all Bias Interrupters will be relevant. Consider this a menu. To better understand the research and rationale behind the suggested Bias Interrupters, read our Identifying Bias in Meetings Guide which summarizes numerous studies and encourage other team members to read it too.
· Rotate office housework tasks. Women are more likely to be asked to do the “office housework” tasks for meetings: taking notes, scheduling the conference rooms, ordering lunch/snacks, cleaning up afterwards. If admins are available to do these tasks, use them. If not, don’t ask for volunteers. Instead, figure out a fair way to spread the housework tasks evenly by rotating based on arbitrary criteria (birthday, astrological sign, seniority, etc.) For more Bias Interrupters about office housework, see Bias Interrupters Toolkit for Assignments.
· Mind the “stolen idea.” Make sure people get credit for ideas they offered. When you see ideas get stolen, you can say: “Great point, Eric, I’ve been thinking about that ever since Pam first said it. Pam, what’s the next step?” If the person doesn’t get it, take them aside later in private.
· Don’t give interrupters free reign. If a few people are dominating the conversation, address it directly. A calm, “Please let her finish her point” should send the message to most. If more is needed, take them aside and explain that your workplace employs a broad range of people because you need to hear a broad range of viewpoints. Some may not even realize they’re frequent interrupters. Create and enforce an overall policy for interruptions. One option is a no-interruptions policy, where you make it clear that interruptions are not to be tolerated, and ding people when they interrupt. A gentler policy is to keep track of who is continually interrupting and getting interrupted, and talk about the problem.
· Schedule meetings appropriately. Schedule meetings in the office, not at the golf course. For an off-site, schedule lunch or afternoon coffee. Overall, stick to working hours and professional locations for work meetings.
· Do your best to not schedule meetings at drop-off or pick-up time. Sure, an early meeting may be unavoidable at times. But on the whole, if you respect people’s non-work obligations (driving their kids to school, relieving their parent’s elder caregiver at the end of the day or taking their “furry children” (pets) for a walk), they will be more committed in the long-run. Be mindful of time zones as well.
· Make a seat for everyone at the table. When there is an inner- and outer-circle of chairs it can create hierarchy. Pay attention: do all the men sit in the inner circle and the women sit in the outer circle, or is race playing a role? If this happens routinely, have everyone trade places with the person in front of them, or better yet, rearrange chairs so there is only one circle.
· Signal everyone’s role. Let your team know what everyone in the meeting brings to the table. “Monique has five years of event planning experience and I’m excited to have her on this project,” or “Sam managed a similar portfolio last spring and we’d like him to run point with the client.” When people know the reason behind everyone’s inclusion on the project, and their role, it’s much easier to have productive and inclusive conversations about the tasks at hand — people are more likely to listen to their ideas and respect their air-time. If you’re not sure everyone with influence understands why you’ve tapped someone into a meeting, be sure to mention it explicitly beforehand.
· Use gender neutral terms. When addressing a diverse group, it is best to not use gendered terms such as “ladies and gentleman” or “you guys.” Address a diverse group such as “you all,” “folks,” “individuals,” “people” and so forth. Encourage the use of pronouns when introducing each other.
· Establish ground rules for diverse groups. When meetings are diverse, people may fail to speak up for fear of not being politically correct. To combat this, simply state at the beginning of the meeting that because people can sometimes get offended, everyone should try their best to speak in a way that’s “politically correct” (aka respectful). Research shows that this simple statement can decrease uncertainty and increase creativity from participants.
· Ask people to speak-up and encourage risk takers. Women and people of color often face social pressure to speak in a tentative, deferential manner and decades of research have shown that women face social pressures to hedge and use softeners. Additionally, both women and people of color may face double-standards for speaking in a direct and assertive manner. If someone isn’t speaking up, ask them to weigh in. “Reagan, you have experience here, what are we missing?” This strategy can also help first-generation professionals and introverts feel included. It’s also tough to speak up against a majority opinion — especially for someone who’s not in the majority group. Research shows that people are more likely to voice minority opinions when at least one other person expresses a minority opinion — even if the minority opinions don’t agree with each other. Some ways to make it easier to voice minority opinions:
– State explicitly at the beginning of meetings that you want to hear devil’s advocate ideas.
– Support people who diverge from the majority. If someone starts to voice an opinion and senses that nobody wants to hear it, they will likely pipe down. If you see this happening, say “Let’s hear this idea out.”
· Send the meeting agenda in advance or forewarn people that you plan to call on them. Introverts and anyone who grew up with a modesty mandate may be more reluctant to speak on the fly or speak up at all. Sending the agenda or giving them a heads-up that you plan to call on them will give them a chance to jot down their thoughts in advance.
Bias within in-person meetings may also translate to and be exacerbated by virtual meetings. However, if handled properly, virtual meetings can mitigate many of the patterns of bias mentioned above. After all, everyone has a “seat at the table” on Zoom. Here are some best practices to keep in mind to reduce bias and increase participation:
· Go all-virtual or all-in person. Having some team members meet in-person while remote workers dial-in can discourage participation from remote workers and give on-site workers an unfair advantage. To avoid this, schedule meetings for either all in-person or all-remote. When this isn’t possible, create a buddy/avatar system; for every remote worker, assign an in-person worker who holds space for them during the meeting.The in-person buddy can help the remote employee jump into the conversation.
· Chronic interrupters? Have people “raise their hand.” Assign one person to lead the meeting and call on people as they use the “raise hand” function to minimize interruptions and equalize speaking turns.
· Can’t get a word in? Encourage people to use the chat box. Whereas in in-person meetings, it may be difficult for some people to get a word in edgewise, in virtual meetings the chat box allows anyone to participate in real-time.
· Make cameras-on optional. Allowing people to make their own choices about being on camera will not only help with Zoom fatigue, but also allow employees a sense of privacy if they do not have private office spaces in their homes. Virtual backgrounds are another option.
· Make meetings accessible and inclusive. Review and encourage your team to read this list of best practices for selecting a meeting platform and settings that can enable individuals with visual, hearing or mobility issues to participate fully in meetings.
· Normalize adding pronouns to usernames. Do not assume an individual’s gender based off their name or appearance, encourage (or require) employees to list pronouns on their screen handles.
Center for WorkLife Law. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
- Thomas-Hunt, M. C., & Phillips, K. W. (2004). When what you know is not enough: Expertise and gender dynamics in task groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(12), 1585-1598.doi: 10.1177/0146167204271186
- Cecilia L. Ridgeway and Joseph Berger, “Expectations, Legitimation, and Dominance Behavior in Task Groups,” American Sociological Review (1986): 603–617
- Williams, J.C., Korn, R. M. & Maas, R. (2021). “The Elephant in the (Well-Designed) Room: An Investigation into Bias in the Architecture Profession,” The Center for WorkLife Law. UC Hastings College of the Law.
- Dhawan, N., Carnes, M., Byars-Winston, A., & Duma, N. (2021). Videoconferencing Etiquette: Promoting Gender Equity During Virtual Meetings. Journal of Women’s Health, 30(4), 460-465.