School of Medicine Executive Faculty and other leaders explore unconscious bias

Earlier this summer, consultant Howard Ross gave a talk about unconscious bias to faculty and staff at the School of Medicine (pictured here) and also led a retreat for senior leaders. (Photo: Daniel Blash)

During a retreat this summer on the Medical Campus, department heads, division directors and other senior leaders at Washington University School of Medicine explored unconscious bias and how to diminish its impact in medical environments.

Howard Ross, a national consultant on leadership and diversity, delivered the keynote address, titled “The Science of Unconscious Bias,” at the retreat in June.

In explaining the topic, Ross noted that human minds evolved to make a decision quickly, often before “thinking about the decision.” He said humans operate from a perceptive lens that enables them to see certain things and miss others, depending on the focus of unconscious bias. This bias filters the evidence that humans collect, generally supporting already held points of view and disproving views with which one disagrees.

Larry J. Shapiro, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, said faculty leaders demonstrated their commitment at the retreat by devoting very focused time to this issue. “They were remarkably engaged with this process, and a lot of good ideas came out of it, including a task force to follow up on some of the suggestions,” he said. “These ideas will remain a key piece in our focus on diversity in the months to come.”

Victoria J. Fraser, MD, the Adolphus Busch Professor of Medicine and head of the Department of Medicine, said faculty were reminded that unconscious bias often serves as the basis for decisions and actions that interfere with efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. “We also learned that we will be more successful in our educational, clinical and research missions if we embrace our differences and become even more welcoming and inclusive in the future,” she said.

Consultant Howard Ross talks about diversity and inclusion during a retreat earlier this summer for the Executive Faculty and other leaders of the School of Medicine. (Credit: Daniel Blash)

The idea for the retreat came about after almost two years of training and other work centered on improving diversity and inclusion on the Medical Campus, said Daniel Blash, PhD, assistant dean of cultural awareness and staff diversity.

“We decided it was time to take the conversation deeper and elevate it to a higher level in the institution,” he said. “This training was unique because it’s one of the first times the Executive Faculty has gathered just to discuss this issue.”

After the keynote address at the retreat, participants were divided into groups. They then brainstormed how to work through barriers involving students, research, patient care, faculty and staff.

Blash said medical environments have special challenges because they tend to be fast-paced and hierarchical. “When people are stressed, they tend not to be as sensitive,” he said. “Diversity and inclusion is a soft skill in a hard-science world, and we have to remind people to take the time to be more aware of their words and actions.”

One of the goals of the retreat was to identify ways participants could become more inclusive leaders. Each participant was asked to come up with an action plan to facilitate diversity and inclusion in the work environment.

The easiest steps for leaders are to request training or to develop “think” groups to continue conversations about diversity and inclusion, Blash said.

Shapiro said he believed the retreat also will encourage the medical school to take a deeper look at the steps involved in hiring employees. “I hope the retreat will help us to really think about unconscious bias while recruiting and hiring so we can overcome any unconscious biases we may have.”

For more information about training on the Medical Campus, department leaders can contact Ivory Woodhouse, career development specialist, at 314-362-4986 or