By Aleasha Vuncannon
“Success is a great deodorant. If you are good, race often doesn’t matter,” said Dr. Derek Avery, the David C. Darnell Presidential Chair in Principled Leadership at the Wake Forest School of Business, during a Feb. 13 workshop that examined the African American experience in corporate America. He and Assistant Professor of Information Systems and Analytics Dr. Lauren Rhue presented their research on bias to School of Business students, faculty and staff.
Motivated by research that was often simplistic and merely skin deep, Avery has spent 20 years examining why gaps in achievement, wealth, and aptitude exist for people of color.
“Some talk is well-informed, and some is not. What is the source of these gaps? There were a lot of intellectually lazy explanations. It made me uncomfortable,” he shared. “People often ask: ’why does racial bias still happen if it’s illegal?’ Just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
Rhue, a trailblazer in her own right, entered the male-dominated field of information science out of a passion for turning data into information. Her research has focused on examining the bias of artificial intelligence. She spearheaded an emotional bias study analyzing commercial facial recognition technology to understand whether it accurately depicts emotion for people of color.
“Overall, emotions are rated more negatively for people of color,” she said. “When emotional ambiguity exists, AI falls short.”
Her findings showed that a face with a grin — in comparison to a broadly smiling face — could be viewed as disgusted and surprised instead of happy and calm. Rhue added that allowing people to self-identify in the AI landscape is one way to mitigate the issue of bias.
“As things move more and more online, we have to be cognizant in over assigning a threat to one group over another,” she added.
Despite the empirical evidence that bias exists, the students were encouraged to focus not on its prevalence, but on demonstrating their intellectual competency to dispel stereotypes.
“You have to create your own way. There’s no best practice. There’s no way to sidestep bias. The bias often flips when people discover that you are really smart,” emphasized Avery. “It is important to self-identify and be visible. You want people to know that you are not a unicorn.”
Rhue advised students to gather information and network. She recommended students who prefer a more indirect approach to galvanize their larger community and network. “Find a sponsor. It’s definitely harder to self-promote as a woman,” she said.
Sean Means (MSM ’19) was among the students attending the event. He drew inspiration from hearing the professors share their personal experiences in dealing with bias and their advice on how to overcome it.
“It was great to hear from people who have been at different levels, see their success and understand that they still struggle, but they’ve also acquired skills and lessons that they can pass on to us,” he said. “It bridges the gap between hearing things in theory and knowing these are people we can reach out to.”
The event was organized by the School’s Integrative Student Services team. Bree Watts, assistant director of student engagement and inclusion, spearheaded the event after being empowered to develop programming specifically for the School’s business students of color.
“I hope the students were inspired by Dr. Avery and Dr. Rhue and the information that was presented. As they begin to matriculate into the business world, they can use this information to help inform their decisions,” she said.
The dialogue that followed the pair’s presentation served its mission. For Avery, who wanted to be an educator since he was 12 years old, says expanding the tent of knowledge on bias and getting more people interested in why there is a problem that drives him.
“The more I uncover, the more I want to find out,” he said. “I am expanding the audience by teaching 18 and 22-year-olds, that is the value.”