4 Quick Questions with Mahzarin Banaji

REIT magazine: July/August 2019

Mahzarin Banaji will be the keynote speaker at Nareit’s 2019 Dividends Through Diversity & Inclusion Forum. Since 2001, she has been the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University. Banaji studies the disparities between conscious expressions of values, attitudes, and beliefs; and less conscious, implicit representations of mental content.

What’s a good starting point for companies, including REITs, to assess whether implicit bias exists in their organization?

The good news is that no assessment is needed. The bad news is that because implicit bias is so pervasive, it’s so much a part of our thinking, it exists everywhere. Not only can we show its existence in our minds (as I will during my DDI Forum seminar) but there are hundreds of studies that show that when given equivalent facts (for example, identical resumes) with just one difference—the candidate’s name is Larisa or Lakisha—the selection outcome is not the same.

In other words, selectors are paying attention not to the facts, but to the name. I would say that it’s always important for an organization to assess itself just to have confidence in its own standing, but the good news is that to consider change at the most basic levels, no assessment is needed.

How are companies able to measure progress?

Companies can decide for themselves what they wish to use as criteria of success. A business must make money. A university must deliver teaching and support the making of new knowledge.

Mahzarin Banaji

We can ask how well we are doing on the criteria we have set for ourselves. And, compared with what? I would urge a small comparison with one’s own competitors and a much bigger comparison to an ideal.

How important is it to set the right tone from the top?

It’s a necessary condition for change to happen. For change to take place, senior leaders must indicate, often through small words and small actions, that they are aware, that they understand the evidence on implicit bias, and that they are intent on improving the climate of their organizations.

But that’s not sufficient. The CEO of a company cannot directly select the newest junior hires. But those selections are what we might call “succession planning” and it’s in the hands of the people far from the CEO. That’s why knowledge about implicit bias and how to practice fair hiring needs to be available to everybody. Also, it should not be imposed from the top; it should be achieved via the deliberations of everyone about who they want to be.

What is the timeframe in terms of seeing positive results from tackling unconscious bias?

This is like asking what’s the timeframe in which we can measure positive results on climate change or the positive results we can measure on losing weight. It’s a lifelong journey.

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