Most of us would like to believe that we are free-thinking, fair-minded folks who treat everyone equally. In the age of political correctness and diversity, that’s built into the code of everyday life. In recent studies the "Like attracts Like" theory of natural selection has become known as In-Group favoritism based on implicit bias affecting workplace advancement. Whether intentional or not, In-Groups will naturally tend to reward their own and this has been a sticking point in the more nuanced conversations about advancement. "You don’t have to be a bad person to discriminate", according to Anthony Greenwald, University of Washington professor of psychology who specializes in studying people’s unconscious biases.
While discrimination has largely been written about or studied as the open and blatant hostility towards a particular group (as depicted in the Dr. Seuss classic The Sneetches.) there has been an explosion in recent years of understanding the degree to which people’s actions and reactions may be more subtle and thus prone to unintentional or implicit biases in the workplace that are complex, harder to identify and therefore mitigate when it hinders the advancement of the so-called Out-Group.
“Your ‘ingroup’ involves people that you feel comfortable with, people you identify with,” Greenwald explained. “We usually think first of demographic characteristics like age, race, sex, religion and ethnicity as establishing an ingroup, but there are also ingroups based on occupation, neighborhood and schools attended, among other things. Out-Groups are those with whom you don’t identify.”
Consider a scenario where there are two or more candidates for promotion or a leadership position. It is likely that the one that has more common interests, similar background of past school or employers, workplace face time, and perhaps even the same gender or race, (as compared with another person who has had completely different life experiences and background) is more likely to be chosen based on these affinities. The discrimination against the other is not necessarily intentional; it is attributing that the favored candidate is more alike and not because there is dislike toward the others. But the implicit bias is there nonetheless.
When looking at the challenges of retaining women in Architecture in 2014 and beyond, in most cases, it isn't the blatant prevention or active discrimination of women from advancing into leadership roles. There is a nuanced bias of In-Group favoritism in Architecture, often shaped by the culture of long work hours, male dominant design leadership, and tendencies toward a gendered division of labor.
In a recent Architecture League "Conversation with Susan Torre" by Rosalie Genevro, Torre reflects on similar challenges for women in architecture in decades past.
Whether intentional or not, real or perceived, In-Group favoritism has a very REAL impact on the retention of Talent, for both women and men. Early findings from the Equity in Architecture Survey show that among the top drivers for job satisfaction is an effective, fair and transparent promotion process. When the opportunity for advancement is perceived to be unclear or muddied by factors including the bias of In-Group favoritism, it is more likely to motivate individuals to look for other job opportunities.
We as a profession need to dig deep and take a hard look at our current practices. We need to start the conversation in each of our firms about the impact of In-Group Favoritism on the retention of top Talent. Change requires collective action and constant pressure to acknowledge that the current system of Architectural practice is broken and that it needs to be fixed.
Curious about understanding your own biases or that of your peers in the workplace? A tool Greenwald developed with fellow researchers, the Implicit-Association Test, measures and compares your unconscious bias tendencies in social interaction.
Written by Rosa T. Sheng, AIA, LEED AP BD+C