Saba Bireda

Saba Bireda

Education: JD, Harvard Law School; BA, Stanford University
Company Name: Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP
Industry: Law
Company CEO: David Sanford
Company Headquarters Location: New York, New York
Number of Employees: 100
Your Location (if different from above): Washington, DC
Words you live by: “To thine own self be true.” William Shakespeare (Hamlet)
Who is your personal hero? Bryan Stevenson
What book are you reading? Florida by Lauren Groff
What was your first job? Cashier at Publix Supermarket
Favorite charity: The National Bail Out Collective
Interests: Reading, cooking, Peloton, education policy, and podcasts
Family: Husband, Emanuel Ryan, and son, Nahom

Unconscious Bias Is Still Bias

As an attorney representing employees who have been subjected to discrimination, unfortunately, I still see cases where employers express openly biased opinions of women or minorities. Many of my clients have never had someone explicitly express discriminatory animus towards them. Instead, they report being denied opportunities given to their similarly situated colleagues or being judged by harsher standards.

For example, my clients often share being passed over for informal career enhancing experiences, such as sitting in on an important client meeting or deposition. The bias they experience often manifests in subtle but important ways that can have a significant impact on their career advancement. Over time, the denial of access to informal mentoring and career experiences can mean the difference between a big promotion and being shown the exit door. The bias may be “unconscious” but that hardly matters to an employee if the result is the same as more intentional discrimination.

In many ways, unconscious (or implicit) bias is harder to address in the workplace because it requires employers to be more aggressive in proactively detecting and eliminating differential treatment. We all know we are not supposed to treat people differently based on their race or gender—few, if any, managers would admit to making decisions favoring employees of one race because they believe employees of other races are not as competent.

Employers can easily train managers not to express biased opinions when making human resource decisions. But a recent study of supervisor evaluations of black and white law firm associates demonstrates the challenge implicit bias presents. A 2017 Nextions study found that supervisors judged black associates’ writing more harshly than white associates’ writing, even when given identical memos to evaluate. Of course, none of the supervisor evaluations stated they were treating the black associate differently, but the study shows that the supervisors may have allowed their negative biases about African Americans to affect their judgment in deciding whether an associate’s performance met firm standards.

Traditional antidiscrimination training may not go far enough in addressing this situation. Employers must have systems in place to monitor data on human resources decisions and, where disparities are showing up for certain groups, they must encourage difficult conversations to expose and address any implicit biases that are affecting those groups.

Employers are more open now than ever to discussing unconscious bias, particularly because of the growing body of research that validates its existence. But it is not enough to educate managers and employees on the existence of implicit bias, employers must actively address the ways implicit bias can have a negative impact in the workplace.