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Places Can Be Prejudiced, Too

June 29, 2018

The problem of prejudice is often discussed but remains widespread. One of the reasons may be that we’re not looking for solutions in the right places; in fact, too often we aren’t looking in places at all.

“When we think of prejudice, most of us think of it as a problem of people,” according to Mary Murphy, Kathryn Kroeper, and Elise Ozier of Indiana University Bloomington. In other words, we tend to focus on individuals’ biased attitudes and on punishing or rehabilitating the “bad apples.” But places can be prejudiced, too, because of their norms, habits, and policies, even encouraging bias in people who believe they are fair-minded and egalitarian. To really make changes in society, we need to look at problematic patterns and norms in settings like workplaces, schools, and community institutions, write Murphy and colleagues in an article for Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Individuals’ attitudes do matter, of course, but they don’t develop or operate in a vacuum. Nonetheless, social psychology research and policies have often focused on them to the exclusion of contextual factors. One of the reasons, according to Murphy and colleagues, is that the “prejudice-in-people model lets people off the hook” by allowing us to think we’re not part of the problem if we don’t feel hateful or disrespectful toward people who are different from us. That can keep us from acknowledging systemic barriers that discriminate against certain groups of people and absolve us of the responsibility to look for, recognize, and stand up to bias.

To illustrate the influence of environment on prejudice, the authors highlight the example of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation of women. Clearly Weinstein is a very disturbed person who should face consequences for his actions, but it is now widely acknowledged that his behavior was an “open secret” in Hollywood, which was allowed to continue by the silence and fear of many people. This culture of silence and tolerance is not limited to Hollywood; if the problem were about a few bad apples, then “what are we to make of the over 500,000 women… who, in one week, came out en masse to reveal their personal experiences with sexism, harassment, and assault in the workplace?,” ask the authors.

The ways in which environments can be prejudiced are sometimes subtle, especially to those not accustomed to looking for them. Environments can be prejudiced if they send cues that only certain people belong, for example if committee assignments and promotions only go to white men or if only one type of person is represented in posters, décor, etc. Companies and institutions may also systemically discriminate in their recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices, even without realizing it, for example against parents and caregivers if they require unreasonably grueling hours or in admissions criteria that rely heavily on tests shown to be culturally biased.

The subtlety of these problems makes it all the more important to address them head-on, according to Murphy and colleagues. Simply having an anti-discrimination policy on paper isn’t enough (in fact, it can make some employees think there’s no problem even when there is one). “Colorblind” approaches don’t work, either, because they send the message that talking about difference is inappropriate and they make it harder for people to acknowledge problems and discuss disagreements.

The first step toward eradicating prejudice in workplaces and other settings is awareness of the problem and the role of the context in creating or sustaining it, Murphy and colleagues write. The authors advise leaders to “evaluate, evaluate, evaluate,” including with staff surveys to identify how members of different groups perceive the environment. We should also look for cues of exclusion, including subtle signs like whether diverse groups are represented in brochures, posters on the walls, and leadership positions, and more overt signs like whether racist, sexist, or homophobic jokes and comments are tolerated. Policies for recruitment and retention are very important, too. Murphy and colleagues recommend increasing the number of minorities so that individuals don’t feel like token representatives of their social groups; recruiting beyond the usual channels and personal networks to expand the diversity of the applicant pool; and instituting identity-blind reviews of work to make promotion and compensation decisions without the threat of implicit bias.

None of these strategies is a magic solution, but together they can create changes in norms and culture. Bad apples may continue to crop up, but they will be harder to grow, easier to spot, and less likely to be tolerated.


Drawn from “Prejudiced Places: How Contexts Shape Inequality and How Policy Can Change Them” by Mary C. Murphy, Kathryn M. Kroeper, and Elise M. Ozier in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

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