Conferences & Events / Social Justice

Reflection on Bielby Lecture: Is Any Company Immune to Unconscious Bias?

The Adler School Institute on Social Exclusion was proud to host William T. Bielby, Ph.D., on September 21, 2011.  Dr. Bielby was an expert witness in the highly controversial Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes lawsuit, which was one of the most publicized employment discrimination cases to date.  Did Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer and private employer, discriminate against women? Dr. Bielby believed Wal-Mart’s policies led to inevitable gender bias used by managers to be subjective in their pay and promotion decisions, which were generally made in favor of their male employees.

The class-action lawsuit involved six female plaintiffs, who argued that Wal-Mart’s corporate culture invited managers to “act on their own worst instincts,” thereby treating women unfairly on compensation, promotions, and job assignments.  Women make up more than 65 percent of hourly employees throughout the Wal-Mart organization, yet only 34.5 percent of managers are women.  It has also been noted that it takes women on average 4.38 years to rise to a management position, while it takes men only 2.86 years to gain similar managerial positions.  In order to better illustrate the clear gender bias issues presented in this case, the plaintiffs enlisted the support Dr. Bielby, who aided in their prosecution of the case.

Dr. Bielby is a professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and specializes in social framework analysis.  Social framework analysis is structured around the stereotypes and biases that people naturally, albeit unconsciously, hold – people have the tendency to act on their own unconscious stereotypes and biases whenever they are given the opportunity to do so, with no regard for the potential consequences to themselves or others.  Dr. Bielby applied the concept of social framework analysis to the Wal-Mart lawsuit, focusing on gender bias, stereotypes, and the structure and dynamic of gender inequality in major organizations such as Wal-Mart.

Dr. Bielby concluded that, by having a centralized personnel policy and permitting subjective decisions to be made by field managers, Wal-Mart allowed stereotypes to greatly influence personnel choices.  Therefore decisions made regarding pay or promotion became highly vulnerable to gender bias.  Although discrimination and intentional bias in the workplace is illegal and socially unacceptable, it continues to have an influence on decisions made within the workforce.  How can we go on to address discrimination or bias when these issues are ever present on a subliminal level?

Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Wal-Mart’s favor, stating that there was too much variance in the plaintiffs’ circumstances to constitute a class.  Although the plaintiffs’ outcome was not victorious, the question of hidden bias remains.  How can we prevent our own stereotypes and biases from infecting our everyday decisions? Is any company truly immune to unconscious bias?