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The Future of Implicit Bias Training at Scheller College of Business: A Conversation with Matthew Dischinger, Nancy Gimbel and Lara Ferreira

The Future of Implicit Bias Training at Scheller College of Business: A Conversation with Matthew Dischinger, Nancy Gimbel and Lara Ferreira

For the 2017-2018 academic year, Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business added an implicit bias workshop to its new student orientation for all incoming full-time, evening and executive MBA students. A direct reflection of Scheller College’s mission to develop principled business leaders, this training was born from the College’s ongoing commitment to increase diversity and foster inclusion in its curriculum and community. In post-orientation evaluations, students selected the implicit bias training session as one of the most meaningful portions of the orientation program.

Nancy Gimbel, assistant dean of student engagement in the Scheller College MBA Program, and Lara Ferreira, Scheller College MBA candidate and Diversity and Inclusion Fellow, sat down with Matthew Dischinger, a postdoctoral fellow in Georgia Tech School of Literature, Media, and Communication, to discuss Scheller College’s implicit bias training for incoming MBA students. The conversation addresses the importance of this training to MBA candidates, as well as the future of implicit bias training and similar efforts at Scheller College. The intention of this blog is to serve as a source of information and inspiration for Scheller College alumni, corporations and small businesses, business schools nationwide, and every graduate orientation program across the Georgia Tech campus.

Matthew Dischinger (MD): Could you both talk about Scheller College’s recent implicit bias training.

Lara Ferreira (LF): It was part of our orientation that is designed to immerse new MBAs in the academic and social life at Scheller so they can hit the ground running when classes start. The session, taught by Brad Wilkinson (a professional who runs implicit bias workshops for business leaders and organizations), was both lighthearted and serious. It tackled serious subjects in a way that was nonjudgmental, friendly, and open. His exercises provided insights regarding who in the room identifies in different ways that people might not expect, while allowing time and space to notice our own thought processes. It was geared toward helping people become more aware of the fact that we all carry these biases and that many of them are a result of socialization. Becoming aware of the biases we hold and how those come into play in a business environment allows us to think about how it impacts business and how we want to consider as future leaders.

Nancy Gimbel (NG): The great thing about Brad is that, in the first 15 minutes, he helped us realize that we all have unconscious biases. These are infused in us at a young age, and it can be overwhelming to realize that you have been part of a system that is biased—even unconsciously. Before you lead any organization, you have to know yourself and what you will bring to the organization. In all of my different roles at Scheller College, students and staff have shared that people made assumptions about them. I realized that we could not go another year without having a program about implicit bias. I talked with Brad about training that minimizes guilt and shame and gets people to think openly about how they can play a role in addressing these biases. We position this training as crucial to becoming a great leader. If you move into leadership roles without addressing these biases, you will be a weaker leader. Brad encouraged us to think about how biases affect hiring and promotion decisions, the way we promote products, and how we form teams. If you’re not conscious about these things, you’re having a detrimental effect on the people around you.

Every incoming MBA student in our full-time, evening, and executive MBA programs participated in this training. To take it to the next level, we need to develop training around how to intervene when we see implicit bias in action.

MD: There’s an ethical component to this training and then there’s also a way in which this is curricular. How do you allow those two considerations to work at the same time in this training and how will you address in future training sessions?

NG: Part of this has to do with being very skilled at having these conversations about implicit bias, and not all faculty, staff, and students are prepared for this. For some students, the best way for this training to resonate is by discussing how these challenges will arise in their future workplace. For others, the biggest concern is how to have these difficult conversations without offending their colleagues now and in the future. With this training, we have to meet students where they are and work from there.

LF: I attended the social event after the training to hear from other students and get the student perspective on the workshop. I asked everyone what they thought about the session, and it was overwhelmingly positive. There’s sometimes a reluctance to study the softer skills, but then when we dig deep into these behavioral issues and apply frameworks and specific tools, a lot of students realize how interesting and invaluable it is to build these competencies.

MD: It seems like one of the biggest challenges that these ideas are met with is getting it to seem like a part of their curriculum. Is part of the training about formalizing this work?

NG: In that vein, I attend curriculum conferences and always hear the same thing: if a school believes something is important, then add it to the curriculum. If something is only an extracurricular activity, then it sounds optional and less important. If you build it into the curriculum, students realize it’s important. At Scheller, orientation is part of the curriculum. The goal moving forward is to figure out ways to push it further and further into the MBA curriculum. This presents challenges, because the MBA curriculum is intense and it’s such a fast-paced program. We believe that instilling implicit bias training as part of orientation plants the seed and provides tools and resources for our students.

MD: Lara, you took an elective course related to some of these ideas—Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Management. How do you think that course relates to the implicit bias training and the MBA’s overall mission?

LF: Our mission is to produce purpose-driven leaders, and that’s at the root of everything, including the structure of our course. Students worked with different texts and ideas ranging from racial stereotyping to biological gender differences and other topics. The culminating class project was a cultural study on another country as though you were a business leader embarking on a project or a business relationship and you needed to know what is important. These ended up being long research projects on history, customs, and the subtler aspects of culture that we might take for granted but that really affect how business is executed. The professor always brought the topics around to considering “why is this important? How does it show up in business?” It was fascinating, and struck me as critical knowledge for leaders.

NG: Learning about implicit bias while in school is so important because once you are in the workplace people hesitate to give you feedback. They’ll have no problem critiquing your supply chain strategy, but they have a problem saying that the way you’re treating people is offensive and demotivating. That’s the toughest feedback to give someone, because it’s uncomfortable. One of our primary goals is to provide our students with this feedback here, in a safe environment. If we can start the conversation now, they should be more aware moving forward.

MD: Do you see curricular changes that would make courses like Race, Gender and Ethnicity mandatory, rather than elective, moving forward?

NG: Possibly. MBA programs conduct curriculum reviews every few years. During the review, you take into account emerging business trends, what the competition is doing, and what you’re hearing from employers. There’s no reason why infusing implicit bias training into the curriculum couldn’t be part of our next curriculum review conversation. You have to prepare students for management and leadership roles. That’s the number one reason they enroll in an MBA program.

MD: How do you both see this training and work within Scheller College as part of broader trends across Georgia Tech to think more intentionally about these issues?

LF: One of the exciting aspects of the Georgia Tech Institute-wide Diversity and Inclusion Fellowship[HMP1]  that I am a part of is that it’s undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and staff. I’ve never heard such a diversity of perspectives in a single room. It was completely collaborative, and we had common goals and perspectives that training like implicit bias training are designed to produce.

NG: One of the great things about Georgia Tech is that each college has the autonomy to innovate within their programs. If we want to try something new at Scheller, the Institute encourages us to go for it. We still have to fit within the structures of the Institute, of course, but we have freedom to experiment and lead. For instance, I had a great dinner recently with our Scheller MBA Forté Fellows. Forté is a consortium of companies, business schools, and other organizations that promotes opportunities for women to prepare for MBA programs and move into positions of leadership in business. At this dinner, our Forté Fellows shared so many ideas about how we can attract more women MBA students. The Institute would completely support us implementing new ideas and innovating our programs. I’m thrilled our women MBAs are so eager to see other women succeed in positions of leadership and in MBA programs. It is one of our goals to make our program more representative of the workforce our students are about to enter, and we’ve done a lot over this past year to expand our efforts in this area.

MD: Are there other projects or initiatives underway doing similar work at Scheller College?

NG: Yes! We recently hired a new faculty member, Tony Daloisio, to teach our leadership development workshop. Over time, he will integrate implicit bias training into the course. The workshop is a multiple semester program that encourages students to think about where they are as leaders and where they want to be. Implicit bias is one topic that will be addressed in more detail in this class.

During orientation, students are exposed to 30 or 40 sessions on different topics, and we conduct surveys to determine which sessions are the most meaningful and helpful to them. This year, the implicit bias training was selected as one of the most meaningful and helpful to their transition to the program. It really resonated with them. The key thing now is how we can get more practice built into the program so students know how to handle implicit bias when they see it. That’s where courage and additional training comes into play.

LF: I think it helps to give students literal examples of what you can do or say. Tony does that in leadership development. Just something as simple as, “Can I give you feedback on that presentation?” It’s hard to be comfortable with those things without training and guidance—and practice!

NG: Right. Many people who exhibit implicit bias are completely clueless about what they’re doing. We have to take time to be reflective and understand where biases come from. While we’ve made progress at Scheller by raising awareness of implicit bias through training at MBA orientation, the next goal is to find ways to continue this conversation with students so they understand how to address those biases more effectively

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Susan Ambrosetti
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