More Than 140 Tune in for Virtual Workshop on ‘Unconscious Bias’

Rather than cancel the event, the Schar School’s Master’s in Organization Development and Knowledge Management (ODKM) program took an ambitious audience-participation workshop into a virtual format on Saturday morning, April 11. 

The Schar School’s first-ever online workshop was fraught with questions: Could collaborative break-out sessions be successful? Would audience members overcome technological shyness and contribute to the conversation with questions and answers? Would participants, you know, participate?

“The changes we are experiencing now are unprecedented and getting us all into unchartered territories,” said director of the ODKM program, Tojo Thatchenkery.  “Online events are ideal ways to reframe the reality and help reduce ambiguity. They provide new conceptual frameworks and help people make sense of the chaotic environments in constructive ways.”

As it happened, “Uncovering Unconscious Bias,” hosted by ODKM student and talent acquisition specialist Lorne Epstein, drew more than 140 participants from not only the U.S. but from around the world for several hours of lectures, discussions, and teamwork that thoroughly examined the little-known topic of unconscious bias.

“Bias is when you form an opinion about something based on a past experience, and your opinion of it comes from way back when,” said Epstein. “Bias comes from the media, television, movies, your family, and where you’re from.

“Unconscious bias,” he said, “is when you don’t know it is happening.”

A pre-workshop survey taken by more than 100 participants revealed that 77 percent of them had experienced some kind of workplace bias. While bias is personally damaging, it also has a negative effect on business.

“When you have less bias and more diversity, you will be more creative, innovative, and efficient,” said Epstein. “However, I say, the biggest argument for removing bias is that it is morally and ethically correct to reduce bias on our global community.”

At different points during the morning, participants were taken off of mute and encouraged to interact in the workshop. Nearly 30 minutes into the video call, participants were scattered into “breakout rooms” where they discussed their own biases and got to know some of the other viewers, including those from around the world.

“There was a great crowd of over 140 professionals from around the globe, each one having a good deal to contribute to the workshop,” said Epstein in a follow-up email after the workshop. “We used the break-out rooms twice which allowed participants to meet other people and brainstorm solutions.”

The workshop was originally going to have space for 40 people in a classroom on the Schar School’s now locked down Arlington Campus. However, because the event was held online, many more people from around the world were able to tune in and interact in the workshop.

“[The Schar School] being our sponsor helped get the word out and lent credibility to the work I was going to do,” Epstein said. “Most of the [virtual] seminar was experiential, like the ODKM program.”