Unconscious Bias in an age of diversity was the topic of conversation at the SMPS-NY Leadership Lunch at the IGuzzini showroom. SMPS members gathered to listen to a panel of leaders discuss diversity and inclusion in the AEC industry through the lens of unconscious bias. Moderated by Daniel Lim, founder of a consulting firm that facilitates discussions to build socially just organizations, the Leadership Lunch began with each panelist sharing their upbringing to understand each person’s perspective, and their current roles in promoting diversity within the industry. As an immediate takeaway, understanding the background and view of others helps to broaden horizons and fight against unconscious bias.

Lim opened by explaining that bias is a natural part of the brain’s processes, and is essential to making quick decisions, especially in emergency situations. In the form of unconscious bias, these quick decisions may be based on discriminatory reasoning, even if the person doesn’t have an active prejudice. Key methods we may all consider to work against unconscious bias include listening before speaking, understanding other’s experiences, and learning about a person as an individual human being. Lim pointed out it takes initiative to be self-aware of bias, and Joseph Sutkowi of Karp Strategies supported this point through the importance of remaining objective, especially in unexpected scenarios where these biases may appear.

Transitioning from interpersonal interaction to the workplace environment, diversity and inclusion is often seen as housed within Human Resources. In response to this idea, Suzanne Pennasilico, Chief Human Resources Officer of SOM, firmly believes that diversity and inclusion are most successful when championed by firm leadership and the technical AEC teams and supported by HR. Integrating the diversity initiatives into goals of leadership and technical teams distributes the mission throughout all levels of a firm. Arup’s Melissa Burton built upon this assertion by delving into Arup’s approach, which originated with founder Ove Arup’s goal of creating a diverse organization that impacts the community.  At Arup, supporting this mission means having a robust team dedicated to the cause. The company has started rolling out unconscious bias training for leaders across all global offices.

Sutkowi of Karp Strategies notes that teams should have time for reflection built into this training to allow people to process the content or experience of the training before going back to their regular work responsibilities, running to a client meeting or project site.  Daniel Lim also pointed out that there is no research to support the effectiveness of bias training, and that one program will not fight a lifetime of unconscious bias.

In addition to the discussion of company-wide programs, Dewberry’s Liz Archer shared methods to promote diversity and inclusion for an individual or a department within an organization. Following her experience as an owner of an M/WBE company and then serving as an affirmative action representative at Tishman, Dewberry’s HR manager saw Archer’s commitment to the cause and invited her to calls about the company’s diversity initiatives. An example we may all keep in mind, Liz highlighted the power of the company review process to call attention to areas of improvement. Through honest reviews about department performance from a diversity and inclusion perspective, Dewberry has reviewed the promotion process to correct pay imbalances and provide additional tracks for advancement for those who don’t work directly with technical leadership. One of the most effective ways to enact change is by utilizing the existing systems within our companies to highlight and implement opportunities for improvement.

A final helpful takeaway about how to build more diverse and inclusive firms is working with the support of senior leadership on combatting unconscious bias during the hiring process. Removing applicant names prior to hiring has helped remove one level of potential bias, since gender, background, and other traits about the applicant are now unknown. However, conclusions may still be drawn from style and content in a cover letter, resume, and portfolio. As an example, Ivy League schools have students structure materials in a very specific format. Other schools are teaching students to structure materials in a similar way to provide an advantage as they apply for jobs.

Summarizing the above, consider some key ideas to implement in your daily interactions or firm initiatives:

  • Methods to train oneself against unconscious bias include remaining objective, listening before speaking, understanding other’s experiences, and learning about a person as an individual human being.
  • Diversity and inclusion initiatives are most successful when championed by all levels and departments within companies, especially firm leadership and technical teams.
  • When scheduling programs around bias or implementing bias training, build in time for reflection to process the content and how to translate the content into change and action.
  • Consider how to utilize existing systems within the company, such as review processes, to highlight areas of improvement.

If you are interested in checking your biases or opening up a discussion within your firm, the panel provided helpful resources to consider:

With leadership support, Google’s People Operations team created a workshop to fight unconscious bias. The site and videos serve as a strong introduction to the topic and training surrounding unconscious bias.

Link: https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/unbiasing-raise-awareness/steps/watch-unconscious-bias-at-work/

  • Implicit Association Test

A test used in social psychology, it reveals any biases a person may have to start the path of being aware and fight these biases.