Research shows that unless we pay close attention, we can miss even the most conspicuous events. “Inattentional blindness” is a term coined by researchers Arien Mack and Irvin Rock at The University of California at Berkeley to describe our inability to perceive something if our visual attention is focused elsewhere. Their work confirmed that if an image or stimulus falls outside the area to which attention is paid, it is much less likely to be seen. And perhaps it is no surprise that paying attention is the key that unlocks unconscious perception from conscious perception.
Since that work was done at Berkeley in the late 1990’s, psychologists have been applying the research to other forms of bias. Patricia Devine, a psychology professor at The University of Wisconsin at Madison and director of the Prejudice Lab, conducted a series of experiments demonstrating that it’s possible to act in prejudicial ways while sincerely rejecting prejudiced ideas. Devine suggests that to break this habit, “you have to be aware of it, motivated to change, and have a strategy for replacing it.” When it comes to bias in hiring, Devine’s suggestions are crucial. It is critical for us to pay attention so that we too do not suffer from this blindness.
I was fortunate to participate recently in an anti-bias workshop along with my Wickenden Associates colleagues. The workshop, led by Rachel Godsil, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Perception Institute, raised our awareness of how biases interfere with the hiring process. Borrowing from the wisdom of both Devine and Godsil (https://perception.org/research/), search consultants, search chairs, and hiring committees must:
- Be Aware of Bias: We must first understand and pay attention to the many facets of bias that we will experience and encounter in the hiring process:
- Identity differences: components of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, or class that result in people being sorted into cultural or institutional groupings.
- Explicit bias: the attitudes and beliefs we have about a person on a conscious level.
- Identity threat: the fear of loss of power for one’s own identity group.
- Implicit bias: the automatic association of stereotypes or attitudes about particular groups without conscious awareness.
- Racial anxiety: the discomfort about the experience and potential consequences of interracial interactions.
- Stereotype threat: occurs when a person is concerned that they will confirm a negative stereotype about the group.
- Be Motivated to Change: One way to motivate change is to follow the advice of Donna Orem, President of NAIS, who urges schools to engage in implicit bias training for all school employees and all trustees. NAIS also urges schools to diversify search committees. Especially when a school launches a search, it is paramount that members of the school community all share the conviction that diverse communities are strong communities.
- Have a Strategy for Replacing Biases: On a personal level, we should plot out effective ways that will help us pay attention to our own blindness. Each of us should make a habit of taking the perspective of a person from another group. We should make an effort to interact with members of other groups; the more time spent with people who differ from us by race, ethnicity, gender, or other identity groups, the less likely we are to experience bias or anxiety about the difference. On an institutional level, school leaders should make the school’s commitment to equity and inclusion explicit. Merely saying, “we do not discriminate” is not inviting to candidates of color. The warmth, kindness, and welcoming nature of a community must be seen and felt to attract candidates of color.
At Wickenden, we are working to attend to our own biases, and we are committed to bringing a heightened awareness of inattentional blindness to the details of the hiring process.
Laura Hansen is a veteran independent school teacher and administrator, who has worked in coeducational and single sex schools. She served for eight years as Head of Upper School at Collegiate School in New York City.