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DEI: Faculty and staff explore unconscious bias during seminar

Allison Manswell

Allison Manswell leads a group discussion during the seminar at Palmer Commons.

Seminar organizers from the school’s Multicultural Affairs Committee join speaker Allison Manswell after the event. From left are Emily Yanca, Tina Pryor, Cheryl Quiney, Dr. Todd Ester, Allison Manswell, Gail Oljace, Judy Craft, Dr. Henry Temple and Martha McComas.

Ann Arbor, Mich., Nov. 28, 2016 -– Understanding and reducing unconscious bias in the workplace was the focus of a half-day seminar attended by about 90 faculty and staff members from the School of Dentistry.

The cultural competency training session, “Navigating the World of Unconscious Bias,” was led by Allison Manswell, a senior consultant with Cook Ross Inc. and author of the book, “Listen In: Crucial Conversations on Race in the Workplace.”  Cook Ross is an international consulting firm that works with organizations in the areas of diversity and leadership development.

The seminar was organized by the school’s Multicultural Affairs Committee (MAC), under the leadership of Dr. Todd Ester, director of diversity and inclusion, and Tina Pryor, human resources director.

Manswell’s presentation cited neuroscience and social science research about how human behavior is often governed by unconscious bias created when the mind takes shortcuts based on previous experiences in order to be efficient and-or protective. It is a fundamental function of the brain but it can mislead people into biased conclusions or actions.  A first step toward improved interactions with those around us is to recognize that unconscious bias is normal and that we must be continually aware of the human capacity to make assumptions. A simpler way of stating it, Manswell said, is the aphorism: “We don’t think the way we think we think.”

In showing research examples, sharing stories of her own experiences and leading participants through small-group discussions, Manswell advocated for “the pause method” to fight inherent bias. Like hitting the pause button on an electronic device, individuals should pause to pay attention to what’s actually happening beneath their judgments and assessments, acknowledge their own reactions and interpretations, and understand that alternative interpretations may be possible. Mitigating bias involves recognizing and accepting that you have bias, exploring awkwardness and discomfort when you feel it, and engaging with people you consider “others” and exposing yourself to role models in that group, Manswell said.

Small group discussions focused on ways in which bias may play out between various constituencies or during a number of activities in the school, such as perceptions of faculty by staff, the relationship between patient and provider, and the student admissions process.  Groups compiled examples how bias might develop and methods for responding to it.

The Multicultural Affairs Committee used an electronic feedback form with questions related to bias. Participants filled out the questionnaire anonymously both before and after the session in an attempt to gauge the effectiveness of the training exercise.


The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service.  General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan.  Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists, and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies.  Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide.  For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at:
Sharon Grayden, Communications Director, at (734) 615-2600,, or Lynn Monson, Writer, at (734) 615-1971.