RL 100: Joan Williams — Implicit Bias in the Workplace
Release Date: 09/03/2018
In this episode I am excited to have Joan Williams on to talk about gender and race, and how they play out in the workplace through her new "Bias at Work" survey.
Joan is a Distinguished Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings. Her path-breaking work helped create the field of work-family studies and modern workplace flexibility policies. She has been studying the legal profession and how to improve it for decades.
- She defines implicit bias and examples of the four basic ways they can show up at work: Prove It Again, Tightrope, Maternal Wall, and Tug of War.
- Why WorkLife Law created the "Bias at Work" survey, and it's goal.
- How the types of subtle bias that are captured in the "Bias at Work" survey affect lawyers.
- What law firms and legal organizations can do to stop these subtle biases from affecting their employees.
Learn more about Joan at:
Bias Interrupters | Small Steps, Big Change
For more information, visit: jeenacho.com
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Joan Williams: [00:00:00] Implicit bias is a technical term that I use because most people know it, it implies that the bias that's going around is unconscious and subtle. And I think actually that's quite misleading, I think a lot of it is pretty blatant. And I frankly don't think it's that important, whether the person who's engaged in biased behavior chooses to bring that to their consciousness or not.
Intro: [00:00:27] Welcome to The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this podcast, we have meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs, and change agents. We offer tools and strategies for creating a more joyful and satisfying life. And now your host, Jeena Cho.
Jeena Cho: [00:00:47] Hello my friends, thanks for being with me today. In this episode, I have Joan Williams. She is a Distinguished Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings. Her path-breaking work helped create the field of work-family studies and modern workplace flexibility policies. She has been studying the legal profession and how to improve it for decades. Joan welcome to the show, I'm so happy to have you.
Joan Williams: [00:01:19] I'm delighted to be here, thanks for inviting me.
Jeena Cho: [00:01:22] So can you give us a quick 30-second introduction of who you are and what you do?
Joan Williams: [00:01:29] I've been a law professor for a very long time, and I've been studying gender for a very long time. I started out studying work-family issues, and now my chief focus is on gender and race in the workplace, and how they play out in subtle ways. Which is why we're excited about our new "Bias at Work" survey that allows people to go in and answer a few questions, and get a quick readout of what kind of bias climate they are reporting at work.
Jeena Cho: [00:02:00] And what have you been finding, in terms of bias at work so far?
Joan Williams: [00:02:05] Well, the "Bias at Work" survey is part of a larger survey that we've used on that, to assess the bias climate first in engineering, and more recently in the legal profession. I co-wrote a study for the ABA Commission on Women in the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, where we gave the larger survey to a national sample of lawyers, and we're just about to come out with the results. Bottom line is, there's a lot of implicit bias going around.
Jeena Cho: [00:02:42] To start off, I think that term implicit bias gets kind of tossed around a lot. What do you mean when you say implicit bias?
Joan Williams: [00:02:50] There is really just a lot of gender and racial bias, in addition to bias based on other personal characteristics. Implicit bias is a technical term that I use because most people know it. It implies that the bias that's going around is unconscious and subtle, and I think actually that's quite misleading. I think a lot of it is pretty blatant, and I frankly don't think it's that important whether the person who's engaged in biased behavior chooses to bring that to their consciousness or not. I always say, if you're clueless whose fault is that?
Jeena Cho: [00:03:32] What are some examples of how these implicit biases show up at work?
Joan Williams: [00:03:38] Well there are four basic types. The first, I call "prove it again." And it's that some people find they need to prove themselves more so than their colleagues. And it's definitely triggered by race, it's triggered by gender, it's triggered by class origin in professions like the legal profession. People who were born in non-elite backgrounds have to prove themselves more than people from elite families. It's also triggered by disability, so that's proved again. The second is quite different, it's called "the tightrope." It stems from research on women that shows that a narrower range of behavior is accepted from women. So women often have to choose between being liked but not respected, or respected but not liked. And when they're assertive they're called aggressive, or worse. Anger is less accepted, self-promotion is less accepted from women than from men. And our research with things like the "Bias at Work" survey shows that a narrower range of behavior is accepted not only by gender, but also by race. So it affects people of color, men as well as women. For example, anger is less likely to be accepted in a professional workplace when it comes from an African-American.
Jeena Cho: [00:05:19] Yeah.
Joan Williams: [00:05:21] And the third pattern of bias is actually the strongest, it's called "the maternal wall"; its gender bias triggered by motherhood. It affects dads too, if they play an active role in family care. And then the final one is called "the tug of war," and that's when gender or racial bias turns into a conflict within those groups.
Jeena Cho: [00:05:46] You know, these issues just seem so big. And so often people aren't aware of it, or you may not be aware that you're treating someone that's a woman or a person of color differently than you do someone who's a white male or looks like you. So how do we begin to become aware of it, and change these behaviors?
Joan Williams: [00:06:14] Well actually people are in luck because they can go to our website, which is www.biasinterrupters.org, and we have a full set of open-sourced toolkits for interrupting bias based on a bias in performance evaluations, in hiring, in meetings, and in assignments. And just going to the website and using the tools for individuals will help give you a very abrupt (and we hope efficient) education on how these patterns of bias commonly play out in the legal profession, and how it interrupt it.
Jeena Cho: [00:07:01] I love that, I love that there's a toolkit and people can just go there and look at it. I often feel like, especially being a woman of color and in the legal profession, I always felt like there was so much focus on changing me, or changing us and our behavior. I remember going to these workshops on how to handle interruptions, or how to handle when someone else claims your idea as their own. So how much of this work needs to be done by the people that these behavior's impact, so women and people of color, versus white males?
Joan Williams: [00:07:49] Yeah. And I think it's important to point out that for some of these patterns, specifically proven again, white men from non-elite backgrounds may be having the same kinds of problems that women and people of color are having.
[00:08:06] I mean we've been working on these problems and supposedly deeply caring about diversity in the legal profession for 20 or 30 years, and almost nothing has happened. When I gave my first program on women in the legal profession in 1997, 17% of a law firm's partners were women. Do you know what it is today, for equity partners?
Jeena Cho: [00:08:33] Oh I look at the data, yeah.
Joan Williams: [00:08:35] It's, oh my gosh. So what we've been doing hasn't been working, and that's chiefly because the chief tools have been diversity initiatives or women's initiatives. And as you point out, that's totally great if the problem is with the women and people of color, but typically that's not the problem. The problem is that these forms of bias have been constantly transmitted through an organization's basic business systems, which is why the other set of toolkits on that Bias Interrupters web page are tools for organizations, tweaks they can make to their hiring or performance evaluations, systems that will in an evidence-based, metrics-driven way, interrupt this constant transmission of bias through basic business systems and workplace interactions.
Jeena Cho: [00:09:33] So for the listeners that are out there that are like, yeah maybe I have some biases and I want to figure out a way to interrupt it, can you give one or two concrete examples or suggestions on how they can change their behavior?
Joan Williams: [00:09:54] I actually wrote a whole book on that with my daughter Rachel Dempsey, it's called "What Works for Women at Work." And what I did for that book is just went around to the savviest women I could find, recited the common patterns of gender bias, and said any of that sound familiar? 96% said yes. And what's worked for you? Then that's what works for women at work. And I'll give you some examples. You mentioned the stolen idea, when you mention an idea and someone else gets credit for it. Well the next time that happens, you can do several different things. One is you can just say really mildly or with humor, "So glad you liked that idea, here's the next step." Or you can work behind the scenes if, that happens persistently, and set up a little posse of people who either echo each other's ideas, making it clear who the idea came from. Or when someone steals an idea, they can say, "I'm so glad you like Jenna's idea. I think you've added something important Jim, here's the next step." So what we have and what we gathered in what works for women at work were a lot of low-risk strategies for interrupting bias (on your own or on behalf of others) without spending too much political capital.
Jeena Cho: [00:11:32] Yeah, I love that suggestion. What can law firms or legal organizations do to stop these subtle or implicit biases from affecting their employees?
Joan Williams: [00:11:44] Well lucky them, because within the month or very early next month will be released a new report that we did for the ABA Commission on Women and Minority Corporate Counsel Association. It's called "You Can't Stop What You Can't See," and it has not only the results of our national survey on racial and gender bias in the legal profession, but also a full set of open source toolkits specifically designed for law firm lawyers and in-house counsel. So they're going to have to toolkits very specifically designed for those environments that will allow them to find out if they have bias through the workplace experiences survey, and then interrupt the biases if they do.
I'll give you an example on the issue of assignments, because that's been less talked about. In "What Works for Women at Work," my daughter Rachel Dempsey coined the term "the office housework," and that women do a lot more of the office housework than men. The undervalued work, the literal housework like planning parties, and administrative work like finding a time or place to meet. So one of the toolkits that we have is a toolkit that provides a protocol for an individual manager or department or a whole organization, to find out if there is a fair allocation of the glamour work on one hand, and the office housework on the other. And then to establish a very specific protocol for remedying both problems. If you have nothing but women doing the office housework, there's a protocol for spreading that around more evenly. And if you have nothing but a small group of white men getting the glamour work, there's a step-by-step protocol for remedying that problem.
Jeena Cho: [00:13:56] Yeah, I love that. And I think that's something that happens all the time in offices. I remember being given instructions like, don't sit next to the food because you don't want to be responsible for serving the food, and all of these rules that you to keep in your head for just trying to navigate the law firm environment, so you don't end up as the office housewife.
Joan Williams: [00:14:19] Yeah, and the bottom line is that takes up brain space, and it has the potential of undercutting women's credibility. Asian American women are under more pressure than any other group of women to behave in feminine ways, and face often more pushback if they don't. And the bottom line is that that shouldn't be your job, to constantly be heading off bias at the pass. That is really the organization's job, to put in systems that seamlessly interrupt those common patterns of bias.
Jeena Cho: [00:14:58] Sometimes when I have these conversations I get pushback, and the pushback is why should we treat the women or the people of color special? Why do they get their own retreat, for example, at a law firm? Why do they get their own woman lawyer meetings or groups? And that's somehow biased against the white males. I'm curious what your response is to that?
Joan Williams: [00:15:29] We are already treating the women and people of color differently. The nationwide study of engineers found that if you ask American engineers if they feel like they have to prove themselves more than their colleagues, it's true that 1/3 of white men say yes, but 2/3's of women and 2/3's of people of color say yes. So those women's and diversity initiatives are designed, at best, to help women and people of color navigate problems that they face, in that case twice as often as white men.
Jeena Cho: [00:16:15] The other place where I often notice is very glaringly, because I spend so much time traveling around the country and speaking, is so many legal conferences. I can probably randomly pick any legal conference (unless it's being put on by a woman's organization or an Asian Bar Association or the Minority Bar Association) and there is not a whole lot of diversity in the pool of the speakers. And often when I point this out to the organizers and say, "Hey you have 80 speakers and you literally had six women and one person of color, me. That's a problem." They will come back and say something like, well we care about diversity but we're not going to sacrifice quality to have diversity, and we just picked the most qualified speaker. What's your response to that?
Joan Williams: [00:17:16] You know, it kind of depends on the field. Some fields are very small and they have a certain demography. If that's true, then you should be thinking about what fields are represented at your conference. But most fields in the law are large and diverse, and probably what's happening is.. I remember going into the Dean when I was at Harvard Law School and asking why there was one woman on the faculty as a tenured woman. And he batted his eyelashes at me, bless his heart, and said there's none qualified. And I said, in the whole country? And he said no. So that is a failure of imagination and it's a failure of social networks. Because how do people put together conferences? They're putting them together under time pressure, they go through their networks, and the single strongest determinant of who is in your network is who's similar to you. So they need to either diversify their network, that would be a good idea, or make sure that the planning committee represents diversified networks by adding other people to the planning committee whose networks will help them tap the full pool of talent.
Jeena Cho: [00:18:52] Yeah, and also the other thing I often notice is the planning committee will be let's say 10 people, 9 of them will be white males and they'll have one woman or one person of color, and they'll literally tell me, "Well she was responsible for finding us diverse speakers, and she didn't." And I always feel like no, it can't be up to one person within an organization or within a conference planning committee to fix your diversity problem. And I think so often that happens, like in law firms we have people that are Director of Diversity and Inclusion, and that person gets scapegoated if you fail on the diversity and inclusion front.
Joan Williams: [00:19:34] That's not called caring about diversity, that's called not caring about diversity. One of the problems and reasons there's been so little progress is that again, the organizational response to the failure to retain and advance women and people of color often has been to hire somebody as a Diversity and Inclusion manager, and give them a budget for programming. Well the reason that women and people of color are falling out of the pipeline is because they have to prove themselves more than the white guys from elite backgrounds, a narrower range of behavior is accepted from the women and people of color, they're under a lot of pressure to play back office roles, they're not given equal access to the glamour work. For women, motherhood is often used as an excuse to sideline women, and the ideal worker still is designed around a man married to a homemaker. Those are not problems that you can solve by hiring a D&I manager and giving her a budget. That response is again showing that you don't care as an organization.
Jeena Cho: [00:20:59] Hmm. You just made this point a little while ago, but we do tend to hang out and associate with people that are like us; I think that's sort of a human nature. So if you look around your network and your circle of friends and colleagues and you notice, they all look like me, they went to the same law school. If you're a white male, it's like oh yeah so many people that I work with are white males and they all went to the same law school that I went to. Thoughts or suggestions on how to expand your network? Even just opening your mind to different ideas. I think it's sometimes harder and uncomfortable to try to reach out and make connections. You know, how to be with that discomfort and start to make those positive changes in your life?
Joan Williams: [00:21:58] I think it's particularly hard for women, I think it's particularly hard for Asian Americans. It's hard for women because the default model of friendship differs by gender. For women, the default model of friendship is to be a good friend you're very open, you have a deep emotional connection, you share troubles. The default model of friendships among the bros is that you have a broad network of relatively shallow ties, and the fact that you're going to help each other's careers is kind of a given. Whereas, if a woman tries to, for example, get business from a friend, it may be seen as, "Oh my gosh I thought we were talking about emotional issues and having an emotional connection." And that context, particularly for women in law firms who really have to take steps towards rainmaking, that is where the action is in almost all law firms.
You need to establish what's called an entrepreneurial network. You need to understand that another genuine way of interacting with people, male as well as female, is to engage in what the guys do. Which is kind of a ritual exchange of favors, like I'll do you this professional good turn and you'll do me this professional good turn. That's not a bad model of friendship, it's just a different default model of friendship. So that's one of the things that women really have to understand. For Asian Americans, this can be particularly challenging because so many, at least from immigrant families, have been taught that the path to success is to keep your head down and just do awesome work.
Jeena Cho: [00:23:58] Mmm hmm.
Joan Williams: [00:23:59] And of course doing awesome work is a precondition, but it's not the whole schmiel. Because if you just keep your head down and do awesome work, the risk is that people are going to be very happy for you to work for clients so they can go out, get more clients, get the origination credit, and hand the work over to you, who now will have to even work harder because you're not getting any origination credit. I remember that my institute, the Center for WorkLife Law, was doing an analysis of performance evaluations of a large and major law firm. And again and again and again and again, it was so blatant; the Asian Americans were being slated into back-office roles. And believe me, you may be doing important work, but if you're not doing the work that's valued at your organization, you're not going to be promoted and compensated in the top bronze.
Jeena Cho: [00:25:12] Joan, thank you so much for joining me today and for sharing your time and your wisdom with us. Thank you so much.
Joan Williams: [00:25:20] Thanks for the invitation, Jeena.
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