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June 7, 2013I arrived at LaGuardia airport early one cold morning, shortly after Hurricane Sandy had paralyzed transportation throughout New York City. I felt proud of myself for being on time. Car services were raising their prices astronomically and I’d managed to get a ride to the airport without paying an extra fuel shortage surcharge. But as I stepped up to the ticketing counter, I realized my passport was tucked away in my nightstand at home. The woman behind the desk smiled politely and responded calmly to my desperate bargaining: "Yes, sir, I’m afraid you do need your passport, even to travel to Canada."

I'd always prided myself on, and maybe even bragged to others about, the fact that I’d never missed a train or plane in my life. Suddenly, the winds were changing. Rushing back to the taxi line, I quickly flagged the nearest (and only) taxi. I frantically clawed open the door, muttering urgently about my left-behind passport—only to fall silent as the driver, a middle-aged woman wearing a headscarf, turned to face me. 

Even those of us with jobs like mine—as a Catalyst employee, I combat gender-based inequities for a living—occasionally have moments like these. Your brain spins 180 degrees and disgorges a terrible stereotype—the kind of thought you never would have imagined you could have. Sometimes the thought registers so loudly, you begin to wonder if you were ever rational or objective. In my case, that thought sounded something like, "No thank you, I'm looking for someone who can drive."

For years, organizations and individuals have searched for ways to combat these kinds of powerful learned stereotypes. Take for example this creative fundraiser for nonprofits that serve women and minorities, which raised $50,000—not your typical approach for generating engagement and change, but, judging by the number of contributors and comments, it got people curious. At Catalyst, we work hard to bridge the gap between objectivity and gut-level, “instinctive” bias. Our research shows that organizational awareness is key. When companies fail to institute checks and balances to guard against gender bias in talent management systems, they end up relying on stereotypes, which in turn leads to glacial progress for women and minorities.

A few things we know:

  1. Leadership support is an essential component of cultural change. Senior executives set an organization’s tone. Managers should provide opportunities for employees to engage with executive sponsors of gender initiatives.
  1. Even organizations with effective programs for diverse talent must pay attention to the impact of bias. All companies should confirm that their results match their desired objectives.
  1. Targeted programs based on unique regional differences are necessary to avoid a counterproductive one-size-fits-all approach. We often hear from our members that diversity challenges are consistent across the board, yet solutions must vary according to geography.

As for me, remaining in that taxi required a feigned amount of confidence and security. Despite the growing pressure of counting down to my flight’s TSA-mandated check-in time, I had a few quiet moments to reflect.

Not only had my brain failed to remember something as crucial as the documentation required to travel internationally, but I was also automatically skeptical of this professional driver’s skill level, just because of how she looked. Could she read the GPS? Would she be able to navigate through heavy traffic without causing a multi-car wreck? Could she even understand English?

She got me home and back to the airport with five minutes to spare.