Discrimination That Is Less Than Obvious (Except to the Targets)

Those of us who care about diversity and full inclusion in the workplace talk a lot about unconscious bias and the forms it takes. We call it things like microaggression, microinequity, microadvantage, microaffirmation. When we get cranky enough, we talk about people being “clueless” or “tone-deaf” (and occasionally use some stronger language). We talk about privilege and how it shows up at work.

We want to believe that everyone we talk to knows and believes that blatant discrimination and obvious bias - for example, Sir Tim Hunt's recent comments on women in science - is not to be tolerated. That kind of behavior, we think, is quickly and easily recognized and dealt with.

But what about things that are not so micro- and yet don’t quite rise to the level of blatant discrimination? Small actions that are not deliberate attempts to exclude or discourage particular groups of people are still noticed, and provoke a reaction. Often, that reaction is suppressed out of fear of being labeled “overly sensitive” or worse.

Two things have triggered this question for me.

The first is the rise in popularity of “fitness competitions” at meetings, conferences, and in other professional settings. These usually involved the use of pedometers and other worn devices that track an individual’s movement, with prizes awarded on an individual or team basis. This seems like a great idea at first glance: get everyone up and out of their seats and moving, fight obesity, improve health, and so on. Lots of fun, unless you’re the person who can’t get up and out of your seat. To me, that looks a lot like blatant discrimination against people with impaired mobility, who are once again forced into the position of outsider. Apparently, we haven’t moved all that far from a time when wheelchair users were excluded from participation by a lack of ramps and elevators, and no one else seemed to notice.

The second is this piece from “the experts” at Fast Company: “Is it Hurting My Career to Skip Happy Hour With My Co-Workers?"  The responding expert, Art Markman, advises that yes, it might be, if those happy hours are giving those co-workers a chance to bond and build relationships, complete with in-jokes and shared memories, and you’re not there. The suggested solution? Spend your time and energy creating other office social events that fit your schedule better. (The query came from a person with young children who wanted to spend evenings at home.) So here is a situation that, to me, is an example of blatant discrimination against parents, not to mention recovering alcoholics (for whom being in a bar may be a strong trigger), people who are hard-of-hearing (ambient noise in bars is difficult even for those with perfect hearing), and the claustrophobic (ok, that’s me – I get panicky in noisy, crowded places and happy hour bars are my idea of an inner circle of hell).

Both of these take me back to a time when playing golf was crucial to advancement in professional and executive careers. The bonding, wheeling, and dealing that took place during rounds of golf and at the “19th hole” in the clubhouse bar were key to moving up. No matter that many (at one time, most) of the clubs where this went on did not admit women, Jews, or people of color, not to mention the barrier to those who were physically unable to swing a club or walk the course. There was even legal recognition of the discrimination that resulted. The importance of golf games to success in business was one of the primary arguments that forced the admittance of Jews, women, and people of color into exclusive country clubs.

How can you and your business or organization avoid this kind of not-so-subtle, and certainly not micro-, exclusion in the workplace and other professional settings?

For a start, when planning events and activities, ask yourself, “Is this something that everyone can fully participate in? What barriers to participation might arise, and how can we address those fairly?

As a leader or manager, pay attention to how, and where, your teams interact socially. If their default is a happy hour meet-up, don’t assume everyone is all that happy about it and that those who are missing out on the meet-ups aren’t interested in being social with their co-workers. Take the responsibility for creating alternatives that take place during regular working hours. Keep in mind that a large part of the appeal of happy hour is the absence of “the boss(es),” and plan other social activities accordingly.

What has been your experience with this kind of exclusion? What suggestions do you have for addressing or avoiding it? 

Want More Women at the Podium? Bring Conscious Awareness to Unconscious Bias.

You’re a meeting planner, a planning committee member, a symposium series organizer, or otherwise responsible for engaging speakers and presenters. You have an explicit goal of ensuring gender diversity* among the speakers you engage. And yet, despite your best efforts, you consistently fall short of your diversity goals. What is going on?

Your program is a victim of unconscious bias.

I experienced this early in my career, when I was running a grant program and was responsible for setting up review panels. I quickly learned that when asked the questions, “Whom should we invite to join the review committee next year?” the group, who at the time were mostly men, would quickly give me a list of names, all of them men. I would tear off that flipchart page, stick it on the wall, then say, “OK, now how about we come up with a list of qualified women.” And, invariably, I would end up with just such a list.

The good news is that these groups of men were quick to realize what had happened. Asked for the first names who came to mind, they named people who looked like them. To overcome that unconscious bias, I had to ask, directly and clearly, for what I wanted from them: a list of diverse candidates, not all of whom looked like them.

Unconscious bias looms large on the list of reasons why women and minorities struggle to advance in male-dominated professions, why they are less likely to receive promotions, funding, and awards, and why they are less likely to be considered as presenters and speakers at your meetings.

As I discovered, when what you are after is a list of potential speakers, reviewers, or award recipients, the direct approach works best. Whether in a committee meeting or a one-to-one conversation, these two steps will help you reach the diversity you want.

1.     State your desire for diversity up front and at the beginning of the conversation. Some variation on, “We are committed to gender diversity in our programs. As we talk about potential speakers (reviewers, awardees), I want you to give a lot of thought to identifying women who would fit well in our program.” Reiterate as needed.

2.     When you still end up with a list that is all or nearly all men, make your ask again, “You have recommended some fine people, and they are all (or mostly) men. Do you know any women whom we should ask?”

And don’t take “no” for an answer. If your current sources truly know of no women who qualify, ask another source.

  • Reach out to  “Women in [Subject]” groups, committees, or caucuses of scholarly societies.
  • Check with program officers or awardees of grant programs that support the advancement of women, such as the National Science Foundation Advance program.
  • Make use of databases like the one compiled by the RAISE project.

Do you have other tips for increasing diversity at the podium? Please, leave them in the comments section.

*Much of this is also true for racial/ethnic and other diversity goals. Gender is what I know best, so I’ll stick to that here.


The landmark 2007 study by the US National Academies, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, noted that “Decades of cognitive psychology research reveals that most of us carry prejudices of which we are unaware but that nonetheless play a large role in our evaluations of people and their work. . . . Although most scientists and engineers believe that they are objective and intend to be fair, research shows that they are not exempt from those tendencies.”

If you think you’re unbiased, go take a few of the implicit bias tests available for free from Harvard University’s Project Implicit.

Books that describe research on unconscious bias and its impact include:

Madeleine L. Van Hecke Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things. Prometheus Books, 2007.

Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Shankar Vedantam. The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. Spiegel & Grau, 2010.