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Are Women Doomed to Unfair Treatment at Work?

Photo: Franziska & Tom Werner/Getty Images

Before the election, the notion of “implicit bias” — the unconscious stereotyping and positions we hold against other races, cultures, genders, and identities without knowing it — was still an unfamiliar concept to many people. In one of the several presidential debates (remember that? A simpler time), Lester Holt asked Hillary Clinton if she felt that police officers were implicitly biased against black people. “Implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police,” Clinton famously responded, giving a national stage to a phenomenon social scientists have been researching for decades. And while the most popular test used to unveil people’s tendencies toward implicit or unconscious bias has come under substantial criticism recently, implicit (and explicit) bias still thrives — just browse through the #BlackWomenAtWork hashtag.

#BlackWomenAtWork began trending online on Tuesday in response to two egregious examples of bias against black women: Bill O’Reilly said he couldn’t listen to Maxine Waters with her “James Brown wig,” and Sean Spicer scolded April Ryan by telling her to “stop shaking her head” when she asked a question about if the Trump administration would be revamping its image. The hashtag, which began circulating again because of writer Brittany Packnett, featured women tweeting stories of microaggressions they’d experienced at the workplace.

Alexis McGill Johnson wants to help companies root out and address these kinds of issues. The co-founder and executive director of the Perception Institute, McGill Johnson investigates the kind of incidents exhibited in the #BlackWomenAtWork hashtag all the time. “We’re a consortium of researchers and social psychologists who look at social science and try to understand how race and gender operate on our brains,” she told the Cut, of the work she and her colleagues do at the Perception Institute. “Ironically, when we founded the institute in 2008, the assumption was that we wouldn’t be able to have explicit conversations about race anymore because if Obama was in office, we were ‘post-racial.’”

In her research, however, she’s found that we are nowhere close to being ‘post-racial’ as a country. In January of this year, the Perception Institute unveiled some of their research on biases against natural or textured hair. What the study found — albeit by using the criticized IAT — is that, of the 3,475 participants in the study, there was a strong bias against black women’s hair. Textured hair was perceived to be “less beautiful, less sexy/attractive, and less professional than smooth hair.” White women, in particular, showed explicit bias toward black women’s hair.

These kinds of findings were brought to light in the #BlackWomenAtWork hashtag. “I feel like it’s a collective black-woman nod,” McGill Johnson said. “What I love about Twitter as a vehicle is that it’s so easy to affirm these experiences because we’ve all been there.” Where does she think these biases come from? “Some of it is very unconscious. Not intended, well intentioned.” But McGill Johnson didn’t need to do research to prove that these anecdotes were real. “Experiencing microaggressions on a regular basis is just a function of being a black woman,” she added. “By just showing up as themselves, with their hair, that’s very real. This hashtag is giving a collective voice to the experience.”

Compliance trainings, McGill Johnson explained, are outdated and were developed in the ‘70s simply to avoid lawsuits based on gender or race discrimination. There needs to be something more robust to replace the old-fashioned model, she said. Take, for example, Blendoor, a company founded by Stephanie Lampkin, that uses blind applications to squash any potential for unconscious bias that could affect or contribute to hiring. Then there is the Pushout Toolkit, a project developed at the NWLC, that is geared toward helping teachers recognize and shut down their implicit biases. If black women are being held to a different standard and being disadvantaged by implicit bias from a young age, educating those who are committing microaggressions about why is one way to prevent these biases from continuing.

But all of that happens long before women even step foot in the workplace. What is to be done on a daily basis to make the office a fair and safe place for all genders, races, and identities?

“The reality is that it’s so hard in those moments to figure out what to do. What are the skill sets that people need?” McGill Johnson said. The Perception Institute does trainings in every sector to help managers and employees figure out what they’re doing wrong. “One of the suggestions we give for managing racial anxiety in a workplace scenario is that if you think you are being affected by racial anxiety,” — either as an aggressor or on the receiving end of a microaggression — “write out a script.” She continued, “When you’re white and concerned that you’re racist, that’s a good thing. If you know you have awkward interactions with women of color and you’re supervising, rather than go off the top of your head in a feedback session, write down your thoughts ahead of time.” McGill Johnson said it’s important to manage the anxiety you feel by confronting it head-on.

“Where we need to go as a workplace society is to help people navigate the discomfort, and then build a muscle around discomfort,” she advised. “Just because you intend something well-meaning, you have to be concerned about the impact on the person across from you. If incidents of implicit bias raise conversations around microaggressions at work, that’s a good thing: It’s the start to creating a positive space for all.”

Are Women Doomed to Unfair Treatment at Work?