As a diversity practitioner, one of my primary goals is to raise consciousness of the value of diversity in our schools, workplaces, government and in our lives generally, but also consciousness of the things that we think and do that undermine our conscious value for diversity.

By and large, the legal profession has achieved consensus support for the value of diversity. The ABA, PBA and Philadelphia Bar all have diversity statements attesting to the value of diversity in the profession.

Yet data tells a story of stagnant progress in achieving the more diverse and inclusive profession to which we aspire. Notwithstanding our commitment to diversity, are there ways in which we are unconsciously undermining our conscious value for diversity?

Recent social science data has proven that the vast majority of us harbor unconscious or implicit biases, including, in particular, bias against certain socially stigmatized groups marked by race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation and many other traits. The most comprehensive and significant body of research in this area has been compiled by Project Implicit. Started at Yale University in 1998 and developed into a collaborative research project in 2003 between professors from Harvard University, Washington University and the University of Virginia, Project Implicit gained wide exposure when it was profiled in The New York Times bestselling book “Blink” (2005) by Malcolm Gladwell.

“Blink” is a book about what Gladwell describes as “rapid cognition” or “the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye.” Benign questions of rapid cognition, such as, “Should we cross the street against the red light?” or, “Should we touch a hot stove?” are not controversial.

However, rapid cognition in high stakes contexts can be more problematic. “Did the black suspect pose a threat of danger to the police officer when he reached for his pocket?” and, “Was the female violinst’s audition better than the male violinist’s?” offer more complicated examples of rapid cognition. Both of these examples are profiled in “Blink” and expose the danger of rapid cognition when paired with implicit bias. The consequences are often unintended, and sometimes catastrophic, notwithstanding the best of intentions — an officer shoots an unarmed suspect or the orchestra fails to recruit the most talented musician.

Project Implicit has compiled extensive research on over 90 different topics for which the vast majority of the more than 4 million subjects surveyed from around the world evidence some unconscious or implicit bias. They range from innocuous topics like pets and music to the most highly charged, including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender. This body of research, and increasingly this new field of study (known as implicit social cognition, or ISC), have conclusively demonstrated that most of us operate in many circumstances and regarding many topics on the basis of implicit or unconscious bias.

So what, if anything, can we do to counteract our human tendency toward implicit or unconscious bias, particularly when our unconscious bias contradicts our conscious values, causing us to act with unintended consequences? Specifically, how do we control our implicit biases regarding race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation and disability, among other things, so that they do not undermine our commitment to diversity in the legal profession?

The social science researchers say the first way to control these implicit or unconscious biases is by raising them to a conscious level. Acknowledging and confronting these unconscious biases allows us to reconcile them with our conscious values and alter our beliefs and behavior accordingly. The second is to engage in experiences that counter our biased beliefs; over time these experiences change our assumptions and attendant behavior — both conscious and unconscious.

But does it, can it, work? As proof of the power of consciousness raising to alter both beliefs and behaviors, I offer the following innocuous example.

I consider myself “eco-friendly”; so when I decided to purchase a new car last year, a hybrid seemed like the obvious choice. Prior to owning a hybrid car, I naively thought that the automotive engineers at Toyota had discovered a way to increase fuel efficiency purely through the innovation of the synergy drive engine. I was, however, quickly disappointed after the first trip in my new hybrid car to discover that my fuel efficiency gauge, which measures fuel efficiency from 25-40 mpg, did not register my fuel efficiency at even the minimum 25 mpg.

I valued being eco-friendly and had purchased a hybrid car; why was my desire for fuel efficiency not being realized? After consulting my owner’s manual, I discovered that my car’s fuel efficiency operated through a combination of hybrid engineering and ideal driving conditions.

For instance, rapid acceleration always requires the transmission of gas to the engine (even a hybrid engine) and incurs the least fuel efficiency in the process, whereas coasting, such as downhill, requires no gas at all and results in maximum fuel efficiency. My preference for fast driving and my unconscious reflex for rapid acceleration was undermining my desire for fuel efficiency. Armed with this new awareness of how to drive my car more fuel efficiently, and with handy fuel efficiency gauges to track my driving behavior, I embarked on a quest to achieve the maximum fuel efficiency of 40 mpg.

Nothing about the technology of my synergy drive has changed since that first day. But now I regularly achieve fuel efficiency of 40 mpg. Why? Notwithstanding my desire to be fuel efficient, I actually discovered that my driving was not fuel efficient. I raised my consciousness. I was given both the information and the tools necessary to modify my now-conscious behavior to be more consistent with my professed value. Over time I became a more fuel-efficient, albeit slower, driver.

Consciousness raising is not just diversity speak; it is not just supported by a growing body of social science research. It actually works. If we can become more aware of the unconscious ways that we undermine our conscious value for diversity, we can begin to change our behavior in ways that support rather than inadvertently undermine our diversity commitment in the legal profession. Here are some ways to start:

• Discover Your Own Implicit Biases. I challenge you to visit Project Implicit (go to www.projectimplicit.com) and take one of the many Implicit Association Tests (IAT) available there to uncover your own unconscious biases. Knowledge is power. If you discover that you have an implicit bias that conflicts with your conscious values, you can commit to changing both your beliefs and your behaviors.

• Participate in Diversity Awareness Training. Aside from reinforcing the value of diversity, one of the primary functions of diversity awareness training is to reveal to participants the ways in which unconscious biases impede diversity goals. Diversity awareness training provides both the information necessary to raise consciousness and the tools necessary to modify behavior consistent with that newfound consciousness.

If your organization has not conducted diversity awareness training or you have not attended training, make it a top priority for supporting your institutional or individual commitment to diversity.

• Seek Out New Experiences. Experiences that challenge our unconscious or implicit biases will eventually lead to modified beliefs. Unchallenged biases are unlikely to change. The more experiences we have with new and different people, the less likely we are to have a single static view of people or groups of people.

Example: If I do not know and have never interacted with a disabled lawyer, I am likely to have many more unchallenged assumptions about disabled lawyers than I am if I know and have worked with multiple disabled lawyers. Individuals should make an effort to interact with different types of people, and organizations should host events and provide other forums for their employees/members to regularly interact, especially with those whom they would not otherwise have any reason to interact.

• Operate on Information, Not Assumption. Resist the “rapid cognition” reflex in high-stakes situations and instead operate on the basis of known information. You can decide whether to cross the street against the red light in the “blink of an eye,” but some decisions require more deliberation and information.

Example: When staffing a new “plum” assignment, do not reflexively pass over the female attorney returning from maternity leave in favor of the office workaholic. Individuals should seek out specific and verifiable information attendant to decision-making and organizations should encourage decision-making on the basis of objective facts, rather than subjective beliefs, especially when the stakes for “unintended consequences” are high.

Officer training has reduced the incidence of unjustified shootings. Blind auditions have increased the number of female violinists in orchestras, and my fuel efficiency gauge has made me a more eco-friendly driver.

If we begin to recognize the ways that our individual and collective biases (and behaviors) in the legal profession undermine our commitment to diversity, if we become more diversity-minded and not just well-intentioned, we can achieve our aspirations for a more diverse and inclusive profession. •

Stacy Hawkins is a diversity consultant and visiting assistant professor at Rutgers School of Law—Camden. She teaches and writes in the areas of employment law
and diversity. She can be reached at shawkins@camden.rutgers.edu or at
856-225-2531.