Monday, June 16, 2008

Social Bias in the Workplace

Bias, either conscious or subconscious, dominates decision-making and perceptions of others. Whether it is stereotypes, ethnocentrism, or socialized preferences, humans are prone to making errors in judgment and biased decisions that, in the aggregate, tend to promote the status quo and restrict opportunities. Social norms are institutionalized by the successful and powerful in society creating barriers to ascending the socio-economic ladder. Without a conscious effort to eliminate all forms of bias, society will continue to preclude the advancement of the underprivileged and promote a false “diversity” in our organizations.

Young children are a blank slate of opportunity, full of promise and potential. They are influenced by social interaction and parental conditioning in their development of a sense of self as well as their perceptions of others. These values are perpetuated throughout their lives, influencing the social norms that dictate the success of every ethnic group or social class. While most businesses, organizations, and politicians superficially promote diversity and unbiased decision-making, it is impossible to divorce the ingrained perceptions and prejudices from highly subjective decisions.

Admission policies at elite schools in America are dominated by cronyism and bias. Family heritage, financial donations, and “diversity goals” are more significant factors in the process than academic achievement and future potential. Academic institutions further socialize students, ingraining in them a thought process that is often based more on self affirmation and self aggrandizement than higher education. As a result of their “prestigious” heritage, these students often receive preferential appointments and ultimately dictate access to important entry level positions that are critical to careers in many industries. The majority of gifted students, either due to a lack of financial resources or a personal heritage that deviates from the model Ivy League profile, find themselves at public universities and colleges receiving a rigorous education second to none.

Once the chosen elite have established their sphere of control, the years of socialization and conditioning emerge as a self preservation and self affirmation mechanism. Years of conditioning led these individuals to believe that they are the chosen few that are destined for power and greatness. Biases favoring candidates, colleagues, and associates that resemble themselves dominate any assessment of merit or potential. Examples proliferate, including the relative dearth of women on Wall Street, the disproportionate concentration of Indians and Chinese in engineering, and a parochial view of the ideal candidate.

Despite a broad base of qualified women candidates, the investment banking and finance industry continues to be an egotistical male dominated society. A preference for preservation of the “old boys” frat life culture of most investment banks combined with a strong aversion to emasculation by successful and powerful women leads to a distinct gender bias on Wall Street. Alternatively, the engineering industry is dominated by immigrants, with a high proportion of Indian and Chinese descent. This phenomenon is likely due, at least in part, to a degree of ethnocentrism and bias towards providing opportunities for young immigrants. The suppression of wages and tight social networks that emerge from a significant concentration of immigrant employees creates a perception of employment barriers and a lack of desirability among native employees. Finally, many managers and senior executives have a need for self affirmation through confirmation that their schooling, career path, and achievements were justified. In order to reinforce these beliefs, they pursue candidates of similar background and pedigree, once again perpetuating the status quo and a singular ingrained set of beliefs.

Bias in society is a viciously brutal phenomenon that destroys dreams and fosters resentment. Even programs designed to reduce bias, such as affirmative action, often lead to a perception that the gifted are the beneficiaries of preferential treatment while the underperformers displace other more qualified candidates from other groups. The United States will continue to perpetuate a bourgeoisie class until society embraces values of inclusion, objective acceptance, and equality. In the interim, resentment and frustration will continue to fester among the resulting proletariat class as they suffer from a lack of fulfillment and underachievement while the bourgeoisie strengthen their control over the wealth and keys to success. It is a sad commentary on America if success is determined by one’s ability to suppress the unique experiences, interests, and beliefs that distinguish one’s personality in favor of morphing into the stereotypical “ideal candidate” defined by a collective group of well conditioned drones whose only claim to power is the school they attended or the pedigree of their father.