Strategies to Address Unconscious Bias in Our Leadership

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This article first appeared in eJewish Philanthropy.

In her recent piece “Reflections on Leadership and Unconscious Bias,” Gali Cooks of Leading Edge bravely highlighted an important truth about unconscious bias that all of us in leadership in the Jewish community should take heed of: Even if we have the best intentions of being equitable and inclusive of the full diversity of the American Jewish community within the work that we do, unconscious bias can cause us to act counter to this intention. Unconscious bias is so powerful and so pervasive precisely because it works below the level of our consciousness, impacting the things we say, decisions we make and actions we take, without our knowing it. In fact, it causes us to say and do things that often run contrary to our consciously held values.

The good news is that with time and effort, uprooting our unconscious biases on race, gender and gender identity, sexuality and disability is possible. Research over the past decade has pointed to some concrete steps we can take to move ourselves in that direction. One key strategy is using checklists to move aspects of our decision-making from the unconscious to the conscious realm, thereby allowing us to catch our biases more readily.

Below is a checklist that I have developed based on the challenges I’ve seen clients confront in the work I do to support Jewish organizations to embody in their materials and events the values that they hold around equity and inclusion. Here are three questions that we can refer to as we develop collateral, communicate for and about our organizations and plan programs and events to minimize the impacts of unconscious bias:

  • Is the full diversity of the American Jewish community represented?When we’re including images or quotes in a newsletter or when we’re hosting a panel to discuss an important topic at a conference, it’s easy for our unconscious biases to take over and for us to unintentionally miss the lack of representation of women, people of color, people with disabilities and LGBTQ folks.
     
  • What unintended implications might be present? Unconscious bias often leads us to use language that we intend to be positive, but may hold hidden implications we don’t notice until they are pointed out to us. One example of this is the use of the world “ally” by Jewish organizations when talking about communities of color. When we talk about the Jewish community “being an ally to” communities of color, we can unintentionally imply that the Jewish community is made up only of white Jews and that there are no people or communities of color within the Jewish community.
     
  • Are we explicitly using inclusive language? While unconscious habit often leads us to default to the language we’ve always used, we can make a conscious effort to use proactively inclusive language. This includes choices like using Parent 1 and Parent 2 on school forms, rather than Mother and Father. Or substituting gender inclusive language like “friends” or “students” or “he/she/they” rather than defaulting to “men and women” or “boys and girls” or “he/she,” which exclude all of those children and adults in our community who identify as both or neither gender.

Taking these steps allow us to achieve both a short-term and long-term positive impact for our community. In the short-term, we align our communications and programming with our values and create spaces that are more welcoming and inclusive to those Jews who often find themselves on the margins of our community. In the long-term, research has shown that one of the ways that we break down our unconscious biases is to expose ourselves to images and stories that counter our biases. The more that we see and hear these inclusive images and language the less of a hold our unconscious biases will have on us. This will move us ever closer to becoming a fully welcoming, inclusive and equitable community where each of us can bring our full selves and make the strongest contribution to our collective success.

Suzanne Feinspan is an independent consultant who is passionate about helping Jewish organizations fully embody the values they hold around equity and inclusion. Prior to consulting, Suzanne worked for over 8 years at Avodah, including as Deputy Director and Acting Executive Director. She is a Senior Schusterman Fellow. You can contact Suzanne at sfeinspan@gmail.com.

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.