Wharton Professor Katy Milkman discusses the importance of making structural changes to combat bias

Professor Katy Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School discussed lessons from her behavioral research on how individuals and organizations can counter bias and increase diversity, in a virtual event hosted by the Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (CDIB). Milkman, author of the 2021 bestseller How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, was joined in conversation by CDIB director Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law.

Among topics explored in the February 15 discussion was Milkman’s co-authored study on the differences between what she calls “pathways and gateways.” Pathways, said Milkman, are the casual ways bias is introduced, seen in the kinds of people an individual might invite to drinks or reply to most quickly in an email. Gateways are more formalized processes like job interviews and assessments. While her study found that both pathways and gateways seemed to be prone to racialized and gendered biases, gateways are more likely to undergo structural change that can lead to less bias in the future. Pathways seems harder to change, she says, because they are less likely to have rules to help correct for these biases.

Yoshino and Milkman also discussed the concept of “temptation bundling”: motivating oneself to follow through with a challenging task by pairing it with an enjoyable one. In the diversity and inclusion space, Milkman said, this can mean having a difficult conversation with a relative at a restaurant you’re excited to try, or doing some other activity you enjoy and look forward to. “I think the most important takeaway from the work on temptation bundling is that we persist at things we enjoy,” said Milkman.

Throughout all of her research, Milkman says, making structural changes seems to be more effective than making small perspective shifts to combat bias, whether on an individual level or an organizational one. “I try to have rules as often as possible in life, so that I can treat people the same as opposed to using my judgment, my intuition,” says Milkman. “That’s when all the bias can creep in.” 

Watch video of their discussion:

Selected remarks:

Milkman, 8:50 “Almost all the solutions I have seen that work in this space are focused on changing the procedures we use, as opposed to feeding new information to people or just hoping that their best intentions will be enough. It normally is the case that we need to make structural changes.”

43:46 “I did one massive experiment with 3,000 people randomly assigned to go through a diversity training we thought was state of the art, best available evidence and science built in, and half of the people didn’t go through it. Then we looked at a bunch of real behaviors downstream and we found that the diversity training could change attitudes, but essentially nothing on behavior changed. And the only thing it changed, and this was completely unexpected… it led women to look out for themselves more, and underrepresented minorities to look out for themselves more, in the subsequent months.…They ended up being more proactive about seeking out same sex or same race mentors in the subsequent time.”

Posted May 9, 2022.