A new book examines ways to end unconscious bias

When freelance writer Jessica Nordell started pitching under a gender neutral name, she suddenly found more of her pitches were accepted. She’s since dedicated her work to examining solutions to unconscious bias, which affects everything from education to health care to criminal justice. She recently spoke to Special Correspondent Megan Thompson about her new book, “The End of Bias: A Beginning.”

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  • Michael Hill:

    When freelance journalist Jessica Nordell was first starting out, she sent editors a lot of pitches, but had a hard time getting them accepted. She then began pitching under a gender-neutral name, "J.D. Nordell" — and immediately had more success.

    The experience set her on a path of researching and writing about unconscious bias for more than a decade and eventually publishing a book. "the end of bias: a beginning" comes out on Tuesday. Nordell recently spoke with NewsHour Weekend special correspondent Megan Thompson.

  • Jessica Nordell:

    I don't think it's a stretch to say that bias affects all of us every day because any time a person is interacting with another person, there's the opportunity for stereotypes and associations to infect the interaction. These reactions can often happen so quickly and automatically that we don't actually know we're necessarily doing them. These are reactions that conflict with our values.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So someone might think, I'm not racist, I'm not sexist. But then if they do have an unconscious bias, they may behave in a way that goes against what they believe.

  • Jessica Nordel:

    Exactly. So unconscious bias is a term that a lot of people are familiar with, but we might also call it unintended bias or unexamined bias. We know that it's extremely pervasive. We see it in education where black students are penalized more for the same infractions. We see it in the workplace where women and women of color in particular are often passed over for desirable assignments. We see it in policing where black men are more likely to be on the receiving end of force, even when completely compliant with an officer's orders and even when no arrests are made. I mean, we see it all over the place.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Nordell says, while there's plenty of research out there on specific instances of bias, she couldn't find any studies on the cumulative impacts of bias over time.

  • Jessica Nordell:

    Because we know that bias doesn't just happen once or twice. It happens continually over a day, over months, over an entire career. So what I did in order to try to answer this question was team up with a computer scientist and develop a computer simulation of a workplace.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Nordell's workplace was called, "NormCorp" and it started out with equal numbers of men and women. Opportunity for advancement was based on a promotability score. Nordell then inserted into her fake company bias that research shows exists in the real world. Like, devaluation of a woman's performance. If a female employee succeeded on a project, she received three percent less of a score boost than a man. Also, losing credit. So if a woman worked with a man on a successful project, she received three percent less of a reward. The consequence of this: more men were promoted than women. Nordell ran the simulation over 20 promotion cycles.

  • Jessica Nordell:

    So what we found was that when we introduced only a three percent difference in the way that men and women were treated in this simulation, it resulted in a leadership tier of our corporation that was 87% men. So we found that it doesn't actually take very much bias to create the kind of disparities that we see in the real world.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Nordell says in her research, she found pretty straightforward ways organizations can interrupt bias. Like standardizing criteria for hiring and promotions. In the field of medicine, where bias can have deadly consequences, doctors can use a simple checklist for care to ensure everyone is treated the same.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So if a bias is unconscious, how can we as individuals recognize them and address them?

  • Jessica Nordell:

    One really important step is to develop awareness, awareness of what's happening in our minds.

  • Jessica Nordell:

    Another thing that we can do is learn history. There's something called the Marley Hypothesis, which was named after Bob Marley, who said, 'If you don't know your history, you don't know where you're coming from.' And the research shows that as people's knowledge of the past increases, their ability to see present day discrimination also increases.

  • Megan Thompson:

    We're doing this interview in Minneapolis, which is where you live and where you wrote your book. And while you were writing the book, the George Floyd murder and its aftermath unfolded practically in your backyard.

  • Jessica Nordell:

    When George Floyd was murdered, I was just finishing this manuscript. And what I was looking for were examples of behavior change. One that I can share with you is a program that was developed in South Los Angeles about 10 years ago. And what happened in this program was, police were told that instead of having their goal be arrests, their goal was to create relationships with the community that they served. And in fact, what they were told is that what they should do is treat the community as though they were members of their own family. Over time, what happened was community members reported that police were starting to treat them with more dignity, with more respect. Something else that happened was arrests went down. But additionally, violent crime went down. And that's a really important link because there's a close connection between police legitimacy, how police actually treat people and their willingness to engage in law-abiding behavior.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Is there a silver bullet here?

  • Jessica Nordell:

    There's no silver bullet. I mean, this is a problem that's huge. It's complicated. It's going to take a lot of different approaches and it's going to take really all of our collective efforts to solve. But the good news is, I mean, it's a human invention. This is a human problem. And I think that if we are really dedicated to it and we use evidence-based approaches, we can really make an impact and make a dent in the problem.

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