Implicit bias

Jan 28, 2019

Help your organization commit to framing diversity and inclusion in a positive light. Examine your own biases and try to be accountable.

When I was in middle school, I was relentlessly bullied by a girl named “Jessica.*” As a result, every time I meet someone new named “Jessica,” I feel a little bristly toward them at first. This feeling is a result of my implicit bias. Whether we will admit this or not, most of us have similar stories about people we tend to dislike based on their name or where they are from.

Overt sexism and racism isn’t something we like to talk a lot about in the AEC industry – we’ve come a long way in the past 30-plus years, and overall it’s led by people who are caring and ethical. But these issues haven’t gone away. Whether you’re a business developer, marketer, project manager, CEO, or human resources manager, the concept of implicit bias is important to understand.

Implicit bias refers to the attitudes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions unconsciously. It’s something that is deep in our subconscious and encompasses both favorable and unfavorable associations – it causes us to have judgements about people based on their name, hometown, race, ethnicity, age, appearance, sexual orientation, gender, and a whole lot of other characteristics inherent to a person. It’s pervasive – everyone has some form of implicit bias, and it doesn’t necessarily align with our declared beliefs or endorsements.

A simple test for implicit bias is to remove the name and any unique identifying characteristics from a resume and evaluate your thoughts on the eligibility of an applicant, then repeat with the name added. Although it’s most often thought of in recruiting situations, if you’re a decision maker of any kind in your firm, implicit bias is something that may be present in almost every choice you make, from setting salaries to promotions, to negotiating project fees.

There’s a lot of debate surrounding Harvard University’s Implicit Associations Test, but it’s an interesting exercise in self-understanding. Experiments do prove that implicit bias is real. The American Sociological Review found that white applicants get about 50 percent more call backs than black applicants with the same resume. Obese children are more likely to be assumed as unintelligent than slim ones. New York Yankees fans are less likely to receive positive feedback from clients. (Just kidding on that last one).

We all have some form of implicit bias, the challenge is what to do about it.

I read a really great article in Quartz at Work by Lily Zheng. She said, “What I’ve realized is that implicit bias training, the way many professionals offer it, has a framing problem. Bias isn’t like an upset stomach that an individual can take an antacid to fix; it’s a chronic issue that affects entire organizations, industries, and even societies. Individuals have racist, sexist, and homophobic biases because our families, schools, workplaces, and popular culture are racist, sexist, and homophobic. The outcome of any implicit bias training shouldn’t be to cure people’s bias or make them more objective – it should be to make people bias-aware.”

So what can you do? Help your organization commit to framing diversity and inclusion in a positive light. Examine your own biases and try to be accountable. If you’re ever in doubt, get a different perspective. Don’t be afraid to talk about it!

Christina Zweig Niehues is Zweig Group’s director of marketing. She can be reached at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.