by Amanda Jerome as appeared in The Lawyer’s Daily on January, 17, 2019


Everyone has implicit bias. Whether it’s toward a specific culture, gender, or age, biases learned from childhood impact how people behave in a workplace which, Delee Fromm explained, need to be broken in order to change social norms.

Fromm, a lawyer and neuropsychologist who works as a consultant on understanding gender at work, spoke at the Family Dispute Resolution Institute of Ontario’s conference on how to acknowledge bias and work towards changing attitudes.

“Implicit bias,” she explained, are “attitudes, stereotypes and beliefs that are unconscious.” Since people may be unaware of bias their “conscious principles can be diametrically opposed” to their unconscious beliefs.

When Fromm went to university in 1972 the second wave of feminism had started. She said there was this belief that women could be whatever they wanted to be and everyone thought by 2018, at least, 50 per cent of senior management in law firms and corporations would be women.

“That hasn’t happened,” she said, adding that data collected on corporations in the U.S. shows that progress on diversity stalled in the ’80s and ’90s.

“So, why is this happening?” Fromm asked. If it’s beneficial for workplaces to have diverse perspectives on a team, why are so many firms and organizations still male dominated? she added.

Fromm explained that the human brain processes information in two streams: fast and slow. The slow process is conscious and analytical, while the fast side, which makes up the majority, is unconscious and makes quick decisions based on image recognition. This can lead people to make snap judgments based on gender or race.

An example Fromm used on the impact of implicit bias was an article released by Wired magazine on software programmers who were horrified that their image recognition software had become gender biased. They’d fed the program photos from social media sites, which resulted in learned bias.

“Any [image] of a person in a kitchen was labelled a woman. What horrified them was what the future implications are of that. So, if a robot goes into a kitchen and doesn’t know why the person is there, they will offer a beer to a man and they will offer help with the chores to the woman. That’s gender bias, robot style,” she explained, noting that a human’s fast processing is a lot like image software recognition.

Fromm said when a human brain is fast processing it’s picking up subtle associations and coming to conclusions.

“Think about gender,” she said, adding that by 2 years old, children can “associate objects with sex or gender: male or female. Briefcase; male. Broom; female. By age 6 months they can identify sex: male or female. This is very important in terms of the gender bias. It is relentless, and it starts very early.”

“We find associations and we create stereotypes,” explained Fromm, noting that if just one element of a stereotype exists people immediately see the whole stereotype.

“That’s how unconscious bias arises and impacts our perception,” she added.

These implicit biases help inform gender messages such as “boys don’t cry” and “girls aren’t bossy.” Fromm stressed that people need to disrupt behaviour when bias presents itself in order to make a real change.

“Become aware. Most people are biased, you can be biased and not act on it, so begin to act. Help change perspectives. Challenge bias, name it, question it, correct it. Support unrepresented groups. Create environments that foster diversity and inclusion,” she suggested.

Fromm said that people should try and recognize “blind spots” at work, where bias occurs and it’s not necessarily noticed or challenged because of ingrained assumptions. Inclusive leadership, she noted, goes a long way in identifying blind spots and changing social norms.

Subtle bias is more damaging than overt, she explained. “Calling someone ‘Climate Barbie’, everyone can scoff at it, but it’s not as damaging as the drip, drip, drip of some of these other things, like less informal feedback, being interrupted, not being invited to important meetings, left out of the information loop, lack of support. These are some of the subtle things that happen in terms of gender biases.”

Gender bias can also be perpetrated in the workforce through “microaggression.” Small, subtle, negative messages that are not intended, such as “you’re just like one of the guys.”

“I got that a lot in law firms. I took it as a compliment, but what is the implication if you take it further? (Women are less valuable) and to be one of the guys is important because that’s one up,” Fromm said.

“If you’re not sure if it’s a sexist comment, go with the reverse. ‘You’re just one of the gals.’ In a male dominated environment that would be considered an insult,” she explained.

Fromm said that gender programming, which instills different values, starts in childhood and can impact how we progress through the workplace.

For example, “for most women power is dead even. That’s the value that we have, we share power. For men, power is hierarchical. That comes through everything: negotiation, communication, presence, even in how we’re taught to value relationships. Boys are taught that achievement and success are important.”

Communication is a big area where gender values present themselves, Fromm stressed.

“Men speak to determine power and status. Interruptions can come up, especially if they feel like you’re one down in the conversation. That can happen automatically. Women speak to determine and achieve connection,” Fromm explained, giving an example of a woman who said “OK” at the end of every slide in a work presentation.

At the end of the presentation, people thought the man gave a more compelling presentation over the woman who said “OK” even though both had strong data.

“We hear the ‘OK’ and we think ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ It’s a habit and it means ‘I’m connecting with you’, ‘are you OK?’ It doesn’t mean ‘I have no idea what I’m saying,’ ” Fromm said, noting that most female habits, such as being soft spoken and non-aggressive, can be misread as a lack of confidence.

Women struggle in the workplace because their habits are misinterpreted. This is especially impactful in areas such as self-promotion, Fromm explained.

“We’re taught to fit in,” said Fromm, so women often won’t tell people all the aspects of their role. This also bleeds in to women not asking for higher salaries because they’re taught to be humble and not ask for themselves.

“Women are just grateful to have a job, so they typically don’t ask for more,” she said, adding that both males and females are social animals and like to seek approval, which can help in disrupting gender biases.

Common issues in the workplace can be women being interrupted in meetings or having their ideas unconsciously stolen. Fromm suggested that business leaders and senior partners need to set down rules for meetings so that there are no interruptions, allowing women to complete their ideas.

Amplification through acknowledging a person has spoken and thanking them for their idea can also help. Being aware of biases toward gender habits can also assist in the hiring process.

“McKinsey [& Company] has bias monitors now in hiring interviews and all they do is monitor for bias and false assumptions. That’s the cutting edge in terms of this work,” she noted.

Fromm stress that even if people get pushback in the moment from a person expressing gender bias, they should stay firm and show that those behaviours need to change.

“It’s no longer acceptable to make those comments,” she stressed, “it’s no longer acceptable to interrupt people.”

“Changing a norm changes a behaviour and that’s where we want to hit it. If you want to be an inclusive leader, that’s where you want to hit it. Ask polite questions. You don’t have to be aggressive, which sometimes as lawyers we are used to, but you don’t have to do that. You can just say ‘there’s a different perspective here.’ Then explain it,” Fromm said.

The Family Dispute Resolution conference was held Nov. 19-20, 2018 in Toronto.

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