Reversing Bias from the Top Down

Pam Sornson, JD

The biggest challenge to reversing implicit bias is recognizing that it exists. The prevalence of prejudice at all levels of society continues because it has been ‘normalized’ as ‘accepted practice,’ making it effectively invisible and therefore exceedingly hard to identify. Reversing these inherently biased ‘accepted practices’ is difficult because they are often embedded in the highest level of social policies. Reducing and eventually eliminating their corrosive impacts requires intentional focus and action, and that action requires a strategy that addresses both their causes and their damages.


Taking the Lead to Reduce Embedded Discrimination

At the recent 3rd Annual Future of Work Conference, hosted by the Economic and Workforce Development department (EWD) of Pasadena City College (PCC), each of the four guest speakers addressed the biases they had experienced and addressed in their individual lives and careers. These DEI leaders are now leaders in their industry and will use their aggregate wisdom in their roles as DEI ‘equity anchors‘ to their individual organizations.


In the Legal Field

From a legal perspective, changes are needed across all social sectors to right the inequity wrongs of the past century:

These days, Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites.

Hispanic workers make up 75% of the country’s agricultural labor force. Almost three-quarters of those (70%) of those are undocumented and therefore have no rights even though their efforts contribute $9 billion to the annual economy.

On average, women are paid just $.84 for every $1.00 earned by a man.

These realities persist because existing policies and practices support their inequitable impact.

As an attorney, speaker Silvia Torres-Guillen has made it her life’s work to push through these policies and find justice for people impacted by biased systems. She’s addressed inequity and inequality in her roles as California Director of Education Equity for the ACLU and as General Counsel for the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board. During the FOW conference, Torres-Guillen noted that true change comes when advocates are thoroughly informed about their constituents’ actual circumstances. Deep research is necessary to uncover hidden causes of bias and the often invisible damages those inflict.


In Industry

The COVID-19 pandemic and emerging technologies are up-ending industrial processes in all sectors. Those circumstances also raise awareness of the inherent prejudices that inhibit personal, industrial, and economic growth. That awareness is leading to new ways of thinking about how the diversity of people provides value to society and opens the doors to bring in the fresh perspectives of those who’ve previously been ignored.

For Albertsons Companies, a national conglomerate of 20 different food industry enterprises, Chief DEI Officer Jonathon Mayes leads the charge to ensure the organization’s workforce resembles the social, ethnic, and diverse cultures of its millions of customers. During the FOW conference, Mayes discussed his role as an ‘equity anchor’ and how he screens for biases at all levels of the enterprise. One of his higher-profile projects now is to rethink how the company measures ‘productivity.’ Too many workers have obligations beyond their jobs that impede their capacity to bring their best effort within traditional ’employment practices.’ Instead, notes Mayes, facilitating workplace flexibility to measure productivity as it relates to individual worker parameters results in both a happier employee and a reduction in staff turnover.


In Government


Equal access to reliable utility services is presumed to be a given in the United States. However, in many locations, minority communities struggle to maintain what services are made available and are often the first to lose utility services when disasters strike. In some cases, those service lapses aren’t addressed simply because no one in charge is looking for them or at them. One of the reasons for this potentially ‘willful blindness; on behalf of service providers is utility companies rarely collect data that would reveal the concern. Economically, that gap compels minority communities to pay a disproportionate share of their income to maintain their heat, light, and water services while also suffering higher levels of disconnections than their white neighbors.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LA DWP) has hired FOW speaker Monique Earl as its first-ever Chief DEI Officer to overhaul internal policies and practices that embed inequities in the organization and also to improve the agency’s capacity to better serve local communities with the highest needs. Earl’s 20 years of service in LA’s Department of Transportation, as Deputy Chief Controller, and as Deputy Mayor of Budget and Financial Policy have given her unique tools to tackle the work.

Earl’s appointment comes as the Agency unveils its new and comprehensive Racial Equity Action Plan. The Plan will both enhance career opportunities for historically disadvantaged communities within the organization and ensure that all LA residents, regardless of their ‘other’ status, benefit from the city’s conversion to 100% renewable energy. One of her first projects is to collect data related to how job postings unfairly limit employment access by inflating educational requirements in a job that doesn’t need that level of training. Clearly, the utility company means business: Earl is starting with a staff of 111 workers who will raise and review equity concerns in its HR department, supply chains, vendor contracts, and more.


Cities rely on transportation systems to move both human and commercial resources; when those systems are designed to divide communities into ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ they inherently impede the full growth potential of the underserved neighborhoods. Such is the case with many road systems in the U.S. that were intentionally built to be a physical barrier between wealthy and less wealthy districts. In many cases, those roads and railroads were built right through the middle of neighborhoods settled by ethnic cultures, primarily Blacks and Hispanics. Often, the impacted population simply didn’t have the economic clout or voice to prevent the destruction of its community.

As Senior Director of LA Metro’s Office of Equity and Race (OER), FOW speaker Naomi Iwasaki and her colleagues will implement the agency’s Equity Platform, which seeks to reduce housing, job, health, and safety inequities through improved transportation systems. The work will measure how public transportation systems impact communities, education, and economic growth and use the data to inform future transportation planning.

Long an advocate for the underserved, Iwasaki has advised LA leadership on neighborhood services, bicycle programs, and affordable housing. She notes that the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted minorities, who either lost transportation altogether or were forced to risk their health to get around town. She is particularly interested in ensuring that all LA Metro constituents have a voice in the agency’s evolution.


It is essential to do more than just understand how the corrosive impact of bias and prejudice erodes social, community, and economic foundations. Leaders must also look at where those prejudices originate and develop strategies that both dismantle the unfair systems address the damages those have already caused. Organizations must also hire DEI professionals to both ferret out inequities and also replace those elements with strategies that address injustices and inequalities. These organizations are demonstrating leadership by facing inequity head-on and pivoting their resources to reduce its impact. The ‘equity anchor’ leaders they’ve chosen to pursue the task are exemplary role models for the rest of the community.


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