#13Percent: the Business Case and Bias Interrupters

Posted on March 10, 2015

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My Perspective: the Business Case and Bias Interrupters


By: Rachael Fuller, City of Gresham, OR Assistant City Manager – LinkedIn

The other day I asked my daughter if she would ever want to be a firefighter. I was stunned and saddened when she told me she couldn’t do that because, in her own words, “Girls can’t be firefighters.” My kids know what I do and know that I work with police officers and firefighters on a daily basis, yet my own 7-year-old didn’t think that she could grow up to be a firefighter.
This conversation made me consider that the #13Percent conversation is, ultimately, a conversation about women in leadership. Increasing the number of women in leadership positions throughout local government would broaden the pipeline of future city managers beyond the “assistant to” and “assistant city manager” tracts and would also create role models in the organization and the community. Because many professions remain male dominated (according to the U.S. Department of Labor, women represent 5.7 percent of firefighters, 16.6 percent of civil engineers and 12.4 percent of police officers), I’ve been thinking about steps that could be taken within an organization to increase gender diversity overall and, ultimately, move more women into leadership positions.
These are the ones that I find most compelling.
Communicate the business case.
According to a January 2014 Gallup study, the business case for gender diversity goes something like this: Men and women have different viewpoints and insights, which enables better problem-solving, ultimately leading to superior performance. A gender-diverse workforce allows a company to serve an increasingly diverse customer base and to attract a diverse workforce.
Within local government, different professions have already committed to increasing diversity and have outlined steps to achieve it. Examples include the International Association of Chiefs of Police Mandates for Action, and a 2014 letter from the President of the Association of Fire Chiefs.
Examine business systems.
Like A GirlGender diversity is a complex issue and it’s unlikely that anyone intentionally sets out to discriminate against women. Government has a tradition and history steeped in the merit system, which establishes principles and a framework for hiring the best person for the job. Yet, women remain underrepresented in some key areas. For help with this issue, we can follow the lead of other professions. In an article titled Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem, author Joan Williams explains that, “When an organization lacks diversity, it’s not the employees who need fixing. It’s the business systems.”
To go about fixing these systems, Williams suggests that organizations do the following:

  • Collect detailed data about whether gender bias plays a role in workplace interactions;
  • Identify company-specific ways to measure the effect of gender bias;
  • Create hypotheses about what “interrupters” might move those metrics;
  • Measure what happened, adjust your hypotheses, and do it all over again until you get it right.

In this video Stanford University sociologist Shelley Corroll describes how unconscious bias factored into a selection process for orchestra musicians and how a change in a basic business system (interviewing orchestra musicians behind a privacy screen) increased the number of women in orchestras from 5 percent to 25 percent.
Here’s what I like about the approach – paraphrased from Williams. Interrupters change the basic business system in a way that stops a pattern of bias in its tracks without talking about bias at all (or even raising it). Bias interrupters have advantages over sweeping cultural change initiatives that are effective, but expensive—and often abandoned.
What does an interrupter look like for your organization?
Change perceptions from an early age.
If the conversation with my daughter taught me anything, it’s that opinions are formed very early in life. This was reinforced in a conversation with a lieutenant who told me that she had not realized that women could be firefighters until she was in high school. After that conversation, my daughter and a group of friends toured a fire station, and were escorted by a female firefighter. More examples and stories of female firefighters (and police officers and public works directors and city managers) might alter young women’s perspectives on their own career aspirations. And in local government, we have an excellent opportunity to help in this endeavor by making sure we include photos and stories of women in these traditionally male-dominated roles.
As the mother of two girls, I also support efforts to disrupt gender stereotypes beyond the workforce – #LikeAGirl.
Have the conversation.
Many professional associations (International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Association of Fire Chiefs, and American Public Works Association) already support efforts to increase gender diversity within their ranks. I remain hopeful that we will find a way to talk about our business practices and cultural systems and take meaningful steps to change them. These can be uncomfortable waters, full of potential social and legal landmines, but the business case proves that our organizations, our communities, and our profession will be better off for undertaking the challenge.

Supplemental Reading

Women and Leadership
Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem
Why Women Still Can’t Have it All
When Talking about Bias Backfires
Madam CEO, Get Me a Coffee

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