Alumna Tackles Workplace Biases
Date published: April 19, 2017
Last year, Satish & Yasmin Gupta College of Business alumna Kristen Pressner, MBA
’99, took a leap of faith. In front of a live audience and the virtual TEDx community,
she publicly admitted that she had an unconscious bias toward women leaders, despite
being a woman leader herself.
As the global head of human resources for Roche Diagnostics, the world leader in in
vitro diagnostics and a division of Roche, the world’s largest biotech company, Pressner’s
role makes her willingness to share her bias all the more surprising. After all, could
it ever be considered a best practice for an HR executive to admit they’re biased?
Pressner discovered her unconscious bias after contrasting her responses when, within
the same week, two members of her team — one male, one female — asked her to review
their compensation. Her initial reaction to the male coworker’s request for a salary
review was something along the lines of, “Yeah, I’ll look into it,” but to her female
coworker her automatic response was, “I’m pretty sure you’re good.”
At the time, these brief conversations didn’t raise any internal red flags, but a
few days later, she realized that her different reactions to the same question may
have been due to an unconscious bias she has toward seeing women in a leadership role.
Troubled by this realization, Pressner set out to learn more about unconscious biases.
She found that unconscious biases are the result of the necessary shortcuts that our
brains take in order to process the millions of pieces of information around us at
any given moment. No one could survive without these mental shortcuts (imagine having
to consciously think through each step in a simple task such as writing your name).
Pressner discovered a method to self-check (a diagnostic!) for biases that she calls
“Flip It to Test It.” Mentally flip whomever or whatever you're talking about to test
yourself. If the “flipped” result feels weird, you may have uncovered a bias.
In the visual example below, Pressner flips the typical definitions of male “take-charge”
traits and female “take-care” traits against pictures of each gender.
And it’s not just male/female stereotypes that are impacted; racism, sexism, ageism
— all of the “-isms” — can be subject to unconscious bias. Here’s another example of the “Flip It to Test
It” method in action:
Probably the most well-known researchers in the field developed tests to help identify
implicit, or unconscious, biases, such as this well-known test from Project Implicit.
To Pressner’s relief, the response from her TEDx talk has helped create more awareness
around unconscious biases, fueling a healthy dialogue.
“This is an amazingly powerful and inspiring speech,” wrote one viewer. “It is sometimes
unusual to see leaders at a certain point in their careers being so honest and open about their biases, especially
The University of Dallas recently caught up with Pressner to learn more about her
research and see if the risk of publically admitting her bias has paid off:
UD: Since giving your TEDx talk, how have viewers reacted?
KP: I've been blown away by the response.
Most people would be beside themselves to imagine that they're biased and don't even
know it, and in particular, biased in ways that are fundamentally inconsistent with
their closely held values and beliefs.
My hope was to honestly share my own experience, because I believed that had the potential
to move each of us from ‘defensive mode’ to ‘discovery mode.’
UD: Has the feedback been all positive, or have you had to do any "damage control"?
KP: So this is the interesting bit. Anyone who has spent any time at all on the internet
knows there are 'haters' out there.
I knew what I was sharing was vulnerable. From a perspective of opening myself up
to negative comments online, but also in terms of perhaps being the first HR executive
to 'say it.'
Surprisingly, the vast majority of the feedback has been positive. At first I was
scratching my head as to why. I believe it may have been the approach I took. I wasn't
accusing anyone. I took people on a journey of my own experience, shared some data
that corroborates what happened and offered a free, fast and pragmatic solution. One
that could be tried if you're keen and discarded if you're not.
UD: Do you have any updates on your research or success stories with the "Flip It
to Test It" method?
KP: It's been so cool because within my own circle of colleagues and friends around
the world (and growing increasingly wider as the talk spreads), people are starting
to say, ‘Should we flip it to test it?’ ‘What if we flip it to test it?’ We’re getting
in the habit of ‘catching ourselves’ and returning to conscious decision making, one
person and one decision at a time.
It will take some time to make movement, but again, the more of us who know, the faster
we can get to that tipping point.
UD: Do you have any favorite memories from your time studying at the University of
KP: I truly enjoyed getting my MBA from the University of Dallas and feel that it’s
been pivotal to any career success I’ve been able to achieve.
My best memory has to be the long evenings and weekends studying with two classmates,
who would later go on to become my best friends in the world. They joined me for my
wedding in Italy and even now that one lives in the U.S. and one in the U.K., and
I live in Switzerland, all of us with highly successful careers, they're still my
best friends in the world.
Reach out to Kristen to continue the discussion.
Linkedin: Kristen Pressner
Facebook: Kristen Pressner- professional page
Watch Kristen’s TEDx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bq_xYSOZrgU