When it comes to job performance, unconscious bias can be more harmful than explicit discrimination—and everyone at work suffers for it.
In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Jessica Nordell, a science journalist and speaker, about her book, The End of Bias: A Beginning (Macmillan), which was reissued in an updated paperback edition in August 2022. Nordell has witnessed a rise in overt extremism and discriminatory sentiments over the past few years, but equally important, she says, are the subtle instances of prejudice that can be more cognitively taxing than clear-cut discrimination. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Why is it so critical to explore unconscious bias?
I’m the author of the book The End of Bias: A Beginning, which is now out in paperback. The book looks at how people, organizations, and cultures become less biased and less discriminatory, and what approaches allow them to become more fair and just. Why is it so critical to address unexamined or unconscious bias when we know that explicit prejudice is also extremely important? Well, both are critical. Both are extremely consequential and cause real harm in people’s lives—and, I argue, to society more broadly.
I think what people might be surprised to know is that the subtle, ambiguous, everyday bias that’s pervasive in organizations and workplaces—not to mention in education, healthcare, and public safety—is actually more detrimental to our performance than explicit bias. If we are in a workplace and are dealing with bias and discrimination that are hard to pin down—where there could be some plausible deniability, where we’re not sure exactly what’s happening—it’s a much bigger drain.
It has a much more negative effect on our ability to perform and do our jobs than if someone is explicitly sexist or explicitly racist. The reason is that ambiguous discrimination is really mentally taxing. It requires a lot of cognitive resources because there’s so much questioning and second-guessing: “And am I overreacting? Is this person trustworthy? Can I really believe what they said, and did they really mean to say that?” It’s quite exhausting and taxing. It has a hugely negative impact on our performance. And that’s one of the reasons it’s so important to address.
Ambiguous discrimination is really mentally taxing. It requires a lot of cognitive resources because there’s so much questioning and second-guessing: ‘And am I overreacting? Is this person trustworthy? Can I really believe what they said, and did they really mean to say that?’ It’s quite exhausting and taxing. It has a hugely negative impact on our performance. And that’s one of the reasons it’s so important to address.
Another reason unconscious bias is so important to address is that it’s pervasive. Look at the patterns of treatment people experience in the workplace. Take, for example, an African American woman who is a midlevel engineer at an engineering firm. The patterns of bias she’s likely to face are things like being excluded from meetings, having her work credited to someone else, and being criticized for seeming too aggressive or too assertive. These things are not necessarily expressed as explicit sexism or explicit racism but have a cumulative, extremely negative, and consequential effect on her ability to do her job and on her career.
Why would those who actually benefit from their biases want to change?
How do we motivate people to change? Why should those of us who might express bias want to give it up or change? I want to answer this question with a story. Throughout most of the 20th century, in the field of ecology, scientists believed that nature was fundamentally competitive. They saw nature as consisting of opposing species vying for limited resources. It turns out that this is not the reality: nature is suffused with cooperation—we see mutually beneficial relationships in forest–fungi interactions and in flower–pollinator interactions, for example.
In fact, scientists now believe that almost every form of life is involved in some kind of cooperation or mutually beneficial relationship. Why did scientists get this wrong for so long? One reason is that the group of ecologists that were working on this problem were an extremely homogeneous group who, themselves, had only ever experienced a competitive environment. They were in fierce competition with one another; they were working within the Western, capitalist, scientific establishment; and they had—for their own conceptual frameworks—a competitive framework to draw from.
As people from different backgrounds came into the field, they brought with them perspectives that allowed for a broader view and, ultimately, a more correct view of how the world actually works. I bring this up because I think what we have to understand is that in order to progress as a society and species, and in order to tackle the enormous global problems that we’re facing, we need everyone to participate. We need all of the perspectives we can bring in. We need all of these backgrounds in order to be able to see what’s happening clearly and accurately and be able to move forward. I think that we all will benefit tremendously from tackling the biases that are currently excluding so many people from full participation.
Scientists now believe that almost every form of life is involved in some kind of cooperation or mutually beneficial relationship. Why did scientists get this wrong for so long? One reason is that the group of ecologists that were working on this problem were an extremely homogeneous group who, themselves, had only ever experienced a competitive environment.
Is there more overt prejudice today than in previous years?
I worked on this book for about six years, and when I started it, in early 2016, it was before the presidential election. What I’ve seen over the six years that I was working on the book is an increase in extremism, white nationalism, and other overt, explicit, and quite deeply held prejudices, as well as an increase in social norms making those prejudices somewhat more acceptable to hold and express in broader society, within some communities.
It’s alarming. If I could, I would like to write a companion book to this which looks at how we combat that kind of prejudice, because it’s a different approach than the approach to unconscious bias. When you’re talking about people who believe themselves to be egalitarian and who want to do the right thing and who want to treat people fairly, there’s a whole bevy of interventions and approaches that can be used to help people live in a way that’s more aligned with their values. If you’re working with people who hold explicit prejudices and believe in things like racial hierarchy or the value of the patriarchal organization of culture, there’s a very different approach that needs to be put in place to handle those interactions.
There is an approach that involves bridging the gap between a speaker who’s trying to persuade a person to change their mind and a person who is holding an explicitly prejudiced belief. It involves making a connection between the experience of alienation, isolation, or exclusion that person has had, and the experience of alienation, isolation, or exclusion of the targeted or stigmatized group that you’re trying to talk about. It’s an extremely important problem, and it needs a huge amount of effort and resources to tackle it.
If you’re working with people who hold explicit prejudices and believe in things like racial hierarchy or the value of the patriarchal organization of culture, there’s a very different approach that needs to be put in place to handle those interactions.