Unconscious bias can influence who leaders choose as their protégés. Can its effects be mitigated?
by Alexandra E. Petri for The Atlantic
Stacy Blake-Beard was 29 years old when she was starting out as a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. Not only was she the youngest faculty member, but she was also younger than most of her students. One day, one of her doctoral students came into her office to discuss a research project. “[The student] looked over at me and asked, ‘How old are you, anyway?’” Blake-Beard recalls. “I think I did not fit her image of what a doctoral advisor would be.”
The idea that Blake-Beard’s age somehow prevented her from being an effective professor was a bias she often faced as an advisor, she said, even though she had the knowledge and experience necessary for the job. Since that first job, Blake-Beard has gone on to study the dynamics of such unconscious, or “implicit,” biases, and how they can affect diversity in the workplace. She’s focused on how unconscious biases can shape who mentors whom, recently publishing a book with the University of Pittsburgh business professor Audrey Murrell called Mentoring Diverse Leaders.
The idea that deep-seated biases can rule whom one gets close to in a corporate setting may help explain why typical forms of mentorship can sometimes work to the detriment of groups that are already historically disadvantaged or underrepresented. “Like attracts like,” says Vernā Myers, a Baltimore-based diversity consultant. “There is something the mentor sees in another that clicks or reminds them of themselves, and then they want to invest in the potential they see in this protégé.” But when leadership across companies are “fairly white, fairly male, and fairly straight,” she says, this presents a problem, since those leaders will reflexively try to cultivate young professionals who remind them of themselves.
Murrell says that getting these relationships right is incredibly important. If companies don’t, they’ll struggle to diversify their workforces, since the biases that shape who mentors whom can limit mentorship opportunities for people who come from different backgrounds than people higher up in the company. David A. Thomas, a professor of business administration at Harvard’s Business School, says studies show that women of color are least likely to find mentors in large corporations. That’s in part because women of color have the least in common, demographically speaking, with those who are traditionally in positions of power and authority, Thomas says.