Paloma Medina on the Psychology of Bias
Paloma Medina is a speaker, coach, and entrepreneur specializing in organizational performance improvement. She approaches her work in leadership, equity, and inclusion through the lens of psychology and systems thinking. In 2019, Paloma challenged the model of diversity in the workplace through her TEDxPortland talk. In this episode, she’ll expand on the ideas she introduced in the talk and explore ways to make hiring processes more equitable.
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HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR CONVERSATION INCLUDE
- How she became interested in systems thinking (1:32)
- The genesis of her TEDx talk (3:50)
- Why “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” are not synonyms (6:16)
- How Paloma would update the talk for our current context (7:22)
- The psychology of bias and how it shows up in hiring (11:15)
- How leaders can evaluate bias in their own processes (15:24)
- The outsized impact of the pandemic on women and BIPOC talent (21:22)
SHOW TRANSCRIPT – HOW I HIRE PODCAST WITH PALOMA MEDINA
[00:00:00] Roy Notowitz: Hello, and welcome to How I Hire. I’m your host, Roy Notowitz, Founder of an executive recruiting and leadership consulting firm called Noto Group, where my team and I have spent the last decade helping to build iconic consumer brands, one hire at a time. You can visit us at Noto Group.com to learn more.
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Speaker, Coach, and entrepreneur Paloma Medina joins me today on the show.
Paloma specializes in organizational performance improvement and she approaches her leadership, equity and inclusion work through the lens of psychology, strategy, and systems. Paloma is such an engaging speaker. I actually was introduced to her work through her TEDx Talk called “Let’s Stop Talking About Diversity.”
We’re going to get into the ideas behind the TEDx talk, specifically the psychology of bias and some of the data that she’s identified around the hiring process. Paloma will also share a few ways to make the hiring process more equitable.
Paloma, thanks so much for being here. It’s great to have you on the podcast.
[00:01:24] Paloma Medina: It’s so good to be here.
[00:01:26] Roy Notowitz: Let’s start with your career path leading up to, and including, the work that you’re doing today.
[00:01:32] Paloma Medina: I always say that my career path is like less of a ladder and more like rock climbing. Like zig-zaggy. I think I started really with this work that I do now in training managers and leaders, started back in, actually, healthcare for the homeless.
So I worked at a clinic here in Portland, Oregon, where I started getting really interested in something called continuous quality improvement which is like this very dry name for thinking about how systems either help support our goals or how the systems in our workplaces are kind of working against our goals.
In that case, it was obviously serving patients and taking care of them well. This continuous quality improvement thing really got me interested in the systems thinking, and I really nerded out on that. And that led me to grad school, kind of understanding more how I could be supportive. And I got an internship where I was on a performance improvement team with non-profit clinics.
And as I was seeing how the clinics were being coached, I, on the side, I was reading about work psychology and organizational psychology and neuropsychology, and my boss who was awesome. Let me kind of share some of that stuff with the teams. Eventually I became a performance improvement coach myself, and just saw how much the psychology side of things and the neuropsychology side of things helped their own performance, their team dynamics, their communication issues, all that stuff. The systems thinking was just way better. And so by the time I made it sort of working in tech, that pretty much just solidified that that was my happy place. And the thing that I think people are really hungry for, that I could provide was yes, I’m a coach and a trainer and things like that, but my interest in the intersection of systems thinking with leadership with neuropsychology is kind of where I’m at now.
[00:03:17] Roy Notowitz: That’s a great story. And it’s a great combination, or intersection, of your experience. And it’s interesting because we first discovered you through your Ted talk video and we were compelled to call you. And it was an extremely well done Ted talk on the psychology of bias,and equity. And so I’m interested, what drove you to do the Ted talk? And what was that experience like for you?
[00:03:44] Paloma Medina: Well, oh, you know, what drove me to do it was actually, I was asked, I didn’t…
[00:03:48] Roy Notowitz: That’s a good reason.
[00:03:50] Paloma Medina: Yeah, I, the TEDx folks in Portland, they don’t really apply or anything. They kind of just get nominations and seek you out. And so when they asked me, I was like, “Yes, but I don’t know what to talk about.” I mean, I know what I care about. So what I was doing then was I had taken what was supposed to be a two year pause in management training and leadership development to go really deep on equity and inclusion.
It was almost like I just wanted to lead myself through like a master’s program and just be like, I just want to focus on this. I want to get better at this because I, I can see that the way that I need to be a better manager trainer and a better leadership coach is knowing more about this. So that was supposed to be for two years. When they approached me, I had, at that point, been doing it for four years because obviously equity inclusion has, yeah, you could study it forever and still not be done.
So when they approached me, I was like, “I don’t know. I mean, I, what is it that I think people aren’t listening or hearing or need to know?” And so I agreed to do it without a clear understanding of what I wanted to say. But the TEDxPortland folks are amazing. They provided me with a speaking coach and every week we met, I spent hours crafting an updated version of the talk, delivered it.
We would meet for an hour. They would give me very specific feedback. And that happened for six months. And it was a six month process to essentially get to the place where the, you saw, the Ted talk you did, which was at that point I was doing eight hours worth of workshop content, and how do you distill it into, you know, 13, 15 minutes?
So yeah, the process was… I haven’t gone through a process like that before. It was really interesting.
[00:05:36] Roy Notowitz: Well, it was definitely compelling.
[00:05:38] Paloma Medina: Thank you.
[00:05:39] Roy Notowitz: And obviously it sparked us to connect. Can you take us through like the main idea and what you actually landed on in terms of what you wanted to communicate to the world in that Ted talk?
[00:05:50] Paloma Medina: Yeah, I mean, the Ted talk was two years ago, which I think is a really helpful context. It was the June, you know, before COVID so I guess two and a half years ago. Meaning different times, right? And so I think what I wanted to convey then is really different than I think what I would have done now. But the key thing is that what I found really fascinating about bias and diversity and inclusion and equity is that I get to hear how much people use the word “diversity” when they talk about this area.
And how very rarely they use the term “equity” or “equality” or “fairness.” And one of the first things that I dug deep into my research was, are these synonymous? And are they synonymous to the brain? And it turns out the research shows they’re very much not synonymous to the brain. They’re actually very different.
They’re almost opposites in how the brain processes; diversity, the idea of diversity, like human diversity around us versus the idea of fairness or equality. And so my argument in that talk is that if we keep using the wrong word, we’re going to continue going after the wrong thing and the thing that our brains want and crave and are wired for millennia to protect is fairness, is equality, you know, in our environment. And so that’s what we should be going after. So that’s, I think the gist, and again, it’s been two and a half years, but yeah.
[00:07:13] Roy Notowitz: So knowing what you know now and having context for the current world, how would you have changed or updated the talk?
[00:07:21] Paloma Medina: I think I would have gone into the difference between diversity, equity, and inclusion, because what I have seen in the past two years is now also a muddying, a confusion that equity and inclusion are the same thing. And I didn’t anticipate that. I think all these folks who saw the Ted talk and were like, so moved by it and said, “Yes, yes, equity. It’s what matters.” They then immediately just started talking about equity and inclusion and then their actual work in their workplaces focused, I would say almost 80% on inclusion. And so I think I would have helped again, just from what I learned, you know, in my research about the brain, I think I would have helped understand these three things are really, really different and equity and inclusion are, they are both priorities, but one can’t get us the other, and we got to tackle them separately.
So what do you think people took away from the Ted talk?
[00:08:17] Paloma Medina: Well, you know, Ted talks aren’t designed to be behavioral changing, which is really fascinating for me. It was one of the reasons it took me six months to craft it because I’m a trainer, I’m a manager trainer. And so I am like, speaking of being hardwired, I am hardwired to think about how to give managers and leaders daily tools that make them better at their jobs.
And I think what’s interesting is that I had to learn again and again, that Ted talks are really meant to slightly shift how you view the world, and then hopefully get you on a path of what you look into next, what you research, what you explore next. And so I would say what I’ve heard from people about what changed for them is either one of three things.
I mean, when it was successful. One is it validated in them, especially if they’re like Black, Brown in some way a significant minoritized group in their industry, they told me how it finally affirmed and validated this uneasiness and yet this core need, this hunger that they felt at work that they couldn’t put their finger on.
And they finally had like research and science to be like, “Oh, this is why this thing matters so much to me.” Or, “This is why I couldn’t let that one situation at work go. It’s because my brain is wired to not let it go, you know?” And so that’s very affirming. And I think that mattered a lot to a lot of people that they weren’t making it up. You know, I wasn’t like… they weren’t imagining that that mattered.
Or two, they kind of felt that for the first time, they didn’t have to feel shame about understanding that our brains, again, have evolved from millennia to be ethnocentric as a default. And that’s because back in cave people days, it was really rare to run into people that were different than you. That sounded different, looked different. It was cause for concern. And so I think it almost like, I know this isn’t a word, but like de-shamed the idea that if you have a bias, it must mean you’re a crappy person. And the research shows all of us have many, many biases and heuristics built into us almost in the way that we have sugar cravings.
Right? Like, it’s just automatic. We shouldn’t feel shame about sugar cravings. No one should be shamed for sugar cravings. And I think instead we get to ask, in what way do we want to be intentional? Not just be ruled by our biology, but be intentional about how our biology intersects with our goals and just like, I don’t eat cake the whole day, but damn I really eat it when I’m excited to eat it. Right? I think we can manage our bias differently without the shame and without the blaming each other for the fact that it’s just the brain. So I think those two things, I mean, there’s also the third camp, which was, I was hoping would support folks who feel on the fence about how they feel about diversity and inclusion, but that’s, I mean, I think that’s, it’s still up for debate.
[00:11:15] Roy Notowitz: Well, let’s dig deeper into the psychology of bias a bit more. Because I know we focused a lot on that when we were working with you and relate it to recruiting and hiring and selection specifically.
[00:11:28] Paloma Medina: Yeah. Just in general?
[00:11:30] Roy Notowitz: Well, I mean, how does bias show up in recruiting, interviewing and the selection process? And you know, some of the examples you gave us around that with ingroup/outgroup psychology?
[00:11:41] Paloma Medina: Yeah. I mean, I think what’s hard is that it shows up within seconds, like seconds. Um, you know, research shows that within a second, the first thing we look at is the gender and try to suss out the race of the resume that we’re looking at or the LinkedIn. So within a second and a half, our brains usually have sussed out. How does this person relate to my group around race or gender or age? You know, that kind of thing. And then once it decides, are they in my in-group? Are they in my outgroup? Then the workflow that the brain takes after that is pretty specific. And so, I mean, where it shows up is just constantly, constantly.
So for example, you know, when they do studies and they remove the names from resumes and they’re just studying, say gender alone, like gender bias, 5% of the candidates that get chosen, when the names are visible, were women. So names were visible. People can tell the gender, only 5% of the candidates that make it to the interview stage are female identifying. If they remove the names from the resumes and you can’t tell, all of a sudden 54% of the candidates chosen to go on to the interview stage were women.
[00:12:49] Roy Notowitz: Where was that taken and what level of job? Do you know any kind of background as to the context for that pattern matching?
[00:12:56] Paloma Medina: So these are called resume studies. If folks want to kind of dig deeper, you can just Google “resume studies gender” or “resume studies race.” I mean, at this point, there’s tons of them and they can also go to my website, PalomaMedina.Com and I have a whole long, long, long list of resources that people can also dig deep into the research.
I mean, I think what’s really interesting is what makes us so afraid to believe that this might be happening. And I think being able to talk about that a little more openly, like for me, when I read study after study, after study, after study the, so for example, the one that I mentioned that was particularly in the tech field around engineers, they were controlling for a bunch of different factors.
Science is not clean. I think anyone that talks about scientific research like it’s this perfectly clean process that is, I don’t know, it’s, it’s it, isn’t how it is. I think it’s important to, to question it and to look into their sources and how the studies were done. But at this point, my conclusion has been after five years of studying this, the hardest thing was to consider the ways that bias was showing up for me in my decision-making process, say in hiring. And I think to sit with the feeling of discomfort, what are my hiring outcomes?
And one of my hiring outcomes that I noticed, you know, the first three years of being a manager was I kind of kept hiring white ladies in their twenties to mid thirties. I’m not a white lady, by the way, I’m Mexican. I’m an immigrant. I was born in Mexico. I grew up in two coasts. I look Mexican, you know, like I’m five foot, in many ways you could say I’m a minoritized group, but the point was that there was something you mentioned earlier, there was some pattern matching I was doing because the jobs I was hiring for were often social work jobs and social services. And if you think of a social worker, what do you think of? A white lady in their twenties– right?
And so, um, I think it’s important to question the research always. Let’s be thorough and rigorous, but I think in noticing if we have any patterns in our decision-making, that’s interesting. And again, I don’t think we should feel shame. I do think we should feel motivated to consider how we can prevent it because that’s what I get fascinated by. There’s tools that make us better recruiters, better hiring managers, better trainers, better managers that also prevent and mitigate for bias. So why not? You know?. Yeah. Why not?
How can a board, CEO, talent leader, or recruiter evaluate or rate the extent to which bias exists within the organization or within a hiring process? What are some of the obvious signs?
[00:15:37] Paloma Medina: You can look at the overall outcomes, right? So for example, let’s say that you divide up your hierarchy at your company into three or four levels. And if you just look at Black, Brown, female employees, like just those demographics alone, and you look at what the percentages are by level, and you look at them next year and they always stay the same and they’re not representative right? Of the ground level of employees. That right there tells you that either you’re hiring is off and/or your internal promotion, right? Which is internal hiring, is off. So that might be one.
Two, you can also break up your hiring process into three stages; the applying, right? What kind of applicants are applying versus what kind of applicants get interviewed versus which ones are offered the job. And if you’re seeing demographics that’s really different in the three that can be really helpful and interesting to know where in the hiring process maybe bias is having the biggest impact? Because again, it’s always having an impact, but to what degree is it having that impact?
You can also do things like I know that some companies found it really insightful to notice what percentage of college graduates were, say, female identifying or Black, Brown identifying in their field. So they’re hiring engineers or they’re hiring sales. Right? And if their middle management didn’t reflect those demographics, that was a clear opportunity, right? Either in internal promotions, i.e., internal hiring, or in their hiring, that maybe there was a gap there. So yeah, there’s a few different ways.
[00:17:09] Roy Notowitz: How about within the decision-making and onboarding process? What are some examples or things to be on the lookout for?
Are there some specific things that we can do or that hiring executives and teams can do to mitigate or reduce bias or make that part more equitable?
[00:17:27] Paloma Medina: There are, I mean, I’m throwing a caveat after I mentioned which they are, but there’s an important caveat. Yes, absolutely. So one of the things we know is that when you have clear criteria that starts with the job description, like, what are the specific job criteria you have in that criteria are what’s called reverse engineered. So they’re based on the outcomes you’re looking for. They’re not based on whoever held the previous role.
[00:17:52] Roy Notowitz: We call that success profile.
[00:17:53] Paloma Medina: Mhm, success profiling is another great way of talking about that. When that criteria stays the same throughout the decision-making process. And that obviously includes the last step, right? Who you’re going to offer that role to. When that criteria is written, and when people are interviewing the final shortlist of candidates and they are having to write down their evaluation, based on that criteria, we have seen that bias seems to decrease. And it’s more likely that minoritized or underrepresented candidates make it through to the final kind of offer stage
[00:18:25] Roy Notowitz: That’s an important hiring practice in general. Like, to be really clear.
[00:18:31] Paloma Medina: Yeah, it is. And I think it’s fascinating how very many people resist it until we kind of share with them that writing it isn’t just being like HR, you know, documenting everything. It’s actually about in real time, your brain, when you write things down and you have to write them down and you know that they’re going to be shared with someone else, someone else will read it, the prefrontal cortex, so the PFC, the most rational part of the self, the most rational. That part of the brain seems to light up and start working harder. And isn’t that the part of the brain you want your right? You want to be making, not reaction kind of decisions, you want to be making rational decisions. And so really it’s like writing things down about how you evaluated that candidate about why you are recommending that they be offered the job you’re simply just tapping into the super smart, intelligent brain. So why not? Why not do it?
[00:19:26] Roy Notowitz: Thoughtfulness is one of the biggest and most important things in that process, in my opinion.
[00:19:31] Paloma Medina: Right. But here’s the caveat. It’s perfect segue, we can be thoughtful and have all kinds of biases getting in the way. Right? Thoughtfulness just means you’re thinking something very thoroughly. Which is important.
[00:19:43] Roy Notowitz: But the bias could still be…
[00:19:45] Paloma Medina: Rationalizing why you’re still going to pick the same candidate that looked and sounded just like the previous person that held the job. And so I think that’s a lovely way of kind of highlighting that the tools like writing things down will help you be a different kind of thoughtful. And so I think that’s what I have found is really cool. Okay, there’s another caveat to that. The last thing is that like yes, written feedback against success criteria is really important in how we… One of the interesting things that blew my mind about this is that multiple studies have found that if there’s just one underrepresented race or gender. So for example, just one woman left in the final six candidates. You’re thinking about the final five candidates or there’s just one Black person and one Brown person, everyone else is a white dude for example, their chances of getting offered that job are about like 2%.
[00:20:36] Roy Notowitz: Very low.
[00:20:37] Paloma Medina: They’re not 20%.
[00:20:38] Roy Notowitz: Versus if you have more than one?
[00:20:40] Paloma Medina: Right. So it’s called two in the pool, two in the last five. And that, we’re still kind of unpacking that a bit, but I think that is telling that what matters most is actually the steps before your shortlist, it’s in your job description, it’s in where you’re posting it. It’s in the reputation around equity and inclusion that your company has out in the field, right? It is in the first screening process. That is where we need to be like going after bias the most because by the time that we get to the short list, again, it doesn’t matter that we got one Black or Brown or female identifying candidate. It won’t change much for that candidate.
To what extent has COVID and the new ways of working from home been either more or less beneficial for women and BIPOC talent?
[00:21:34] Paloma Medina: Yeah. I mean the jury’s out to some degree, but we know that there’s some very intense data at this point, especially for women of color and for women in particular, the level of career interruption that the pandemic has caused in just those two demographics, so women and women of color, is staggering. It’s staggering. we lost more women than gay. Again, and again, every job support we see that, and again, that hits women of color the hardest. And there’s some really interesting stats on that as well. And so I think while it could be argued that some of the remote work ability or opportunity might support. I think maybe originally, this is what we thought. When this first started all going down, we were like, oh, maybe this will support more women and women of color to be able to join the workforce and be promoted because now they can work from home, because now they can stay living where they are, but get a job in San Francisco because now it’s all remote work. So far, the complete opposite has been the case. And we’re seeing every level from folks at the most junior levels in our industries to the highest professionals like urologists, like, endocrinologists, like people at the top of the field, as far as like, how in demand they are, if they’re female and especially women of color, we are just losing them in droves.
So it’s pretty rough out there.
[00:22:58] Roy Notowitz: That’s drastic.
[00:22:59] Paloma Medina: It’s drastic.
[00:23:01] Roy Notowitz: Do you think once the pandemic has passed, that people will come back?
[00:23:05] Paloma Medina: No. No, because I think one of the things that’s really long impacting, um, one, I mean, I’ve read really interesting reports about behavioral economists and economists in general, they are predicting that this impact on women of color and on women will last at least two generations, the financial impact. Meaning like the trickle down effects are pretty long-term, one.
Two, we already know that women before the pandemic, um, women and people of color are overly penalized in the job hiring process for any gaps in work, period. Three, we also know that what you lose out for every year that you’re out of the workforce in networking and experience in skill building, in mentorship, in sponsorship is significant and exponential. Meaning what you lose out on the second year is not just like double the first year, it just keeps building. It’s like a really bad snowball of what it’s doing to your career.
And I think what we should be focusing on is, presuming that the pandemic being over, whatever that looks like, that we can absolutely right now start focusing on how to support people’s careers, knowing that there are things outside of control, like the massive short supply, for example, of childcare. Right? I think the pandemic has just helped us see that we are so interdependent as an economy. That we don’t get to just say, oh, I don’t know that, you know, childcare or whatever. That’s not my field. I’m just a manager. It’s like, well, but that is affecting the workforce that you could access for the next five years, is whether or not we as a collective, group, community, city support the childcare collapse, you know, the collapse in childcare access. Yeah it’s interesting.
[00:25:07] Roy Notowitz: It’s really interesting. So is there anything that you’re working on currently that you’re excited about? Let’s talk a little bit about, back to your work and what you’re thinking about in the future.
[00:25:19] Paloma Medina: Yeah, I’m really excited right now about getting back to, you know, the first love I had, which was manager training and leadership development and coaching. I’m working on a four part series right now that’s like, it’s both like a four/six week program to support managers, which, you know, really could use a lot of support right now, but it also builds in lots of skills building and it’s called a Managing In Uncertain Times.
And I’m excited because so much of the brain nerd stuff that I’m into is really, really helpful during this high level of unpredictability, during these very, very intense economic times like we just discussed and it builds in equity and inclusion just into more updated tools versus treating them as two different things, treating that like we should train managers on being better managers and then on the side, we talk about equity and inclusion.
In day-to-day life, you know, equity and inclusion is just part of how we are good managers or good leaders. We should presume that our teams will always be coming from different experiences and backgrounds than we will. It’s cool. It’s how it is. And thus understanding the psychology and the neuropsychology of how we can support them equally is just being good managers. So I’m really excited about it. It’s just, you know, depending on the kind of company, it’s four to six weeks, I just launched it. No joke, like two weeks ago, after some testing. So, yeah, I’m excited about that.
[00:26:45] Roy Notowitz: That’s great. I mean, you, I have to say, you had such a huge impact on us. I mean, we really benefited from the work that you did with our team and we’ve implemented some really meaningful projects to improve our process and influence clients along the way, and just to build our own knowledge concurrently.
[00:27:03] Paloma Medina: Oh, that’s so awesome to hear. I think what’s interesting is, I don’t think that’s so much me. Right? But I think it’s teams that are supported to just always be iterating and always be improving. They’re the ones who make the tools work. Right? So I would say hats off to y’all that that’s just part of your work culture.
[00:27:22] Roy Notowitz: Yeah. My team’s incredible…
[00:27:23] Paloma Medina: Yeah, yeah they are.
[00:27:25] Roy Notowitz: They’re the best, as you know…
[00:27:26] Paloma Medina: I do, I do.
[00:27:27] Roy Notowitz: …from working with them and we really appreciate your support too, that you’ve given, you know, months later as we were sort of implementing these ideas and then looping back with you to get your input and feedback. It’s been extremely useful and you know, we’re just at the front end of the journey and we’re continuing that process, but you really got us on a good path quickly and that’s been incredible. So how can people get in touch with you if they’re interested in connecting with you or working with you?
[00:27:53] Paloma Medina: They can connect with me through my website, PalomaMedina.com. They can also probably just Google my name.
[00:27:59] Roy Notowitz: We’ll have some links as well.
[00:28:00] Paloma Medina: But yeah, just reach out via my website. I have a form there, and I love talking to folks more about this. And if you can’t find a link or anything like that or something that I talked about, I’m really always happy to point folks to the direct link to a particular study or…
[00:28:13] Roy Notowitz: Well, thank you so much, Paloma, for being on the podcast. This is something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. And I appreciate you taking the time to share your knowledge and experience and expertise.
[00:28:25] Paloma Medina: Of course, happy to. It’s always so nice talking to you, Roy.
[00:28:28] Roy Notowitz: Thanks for tuning in to How I Hire. Visit HowIHire.com for more details about the show and our guests. We also love hearing from you. You can leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or find us on LinkedIn. How I Hire is created by Noto Group Executive Search. To find out more about Noto Group visit NotoGroup.Com. This podcast was produced by AO McClain, LLC. To learn more about their work, visit AOMcClain.com.