EntertainHR: Olympian Tori Bowie’s Pregnancy-Related Death and the Pervasiveness of Implicit Bias

American track and field champion Tori Bowie recently died suddenly from complications related to childbirth. The three-time Olympian, who was once known as one of the fastest women in the world, hadn’t been seen for several days when the local police department sent deputies to her Florida home as part of a welfare check. When they arrived, the deputies found her in bed alone. In June, the Orange County medical examiner released an autopsy report that revealed she was approximately 8 months pregnant and had been in labor at the time of her death. Although not much is known about the circumstances of her death, it’s believed she had been suffering from possible respiratory distress and eclampsia, which is a rare and serious condition that causes seizures or coma in pregnant women with preeclampsia, a dangerous condition characterized by high blood pressure that develops during pregnancy. Although Bowie shared her excitement about becoming a new mom with close friends and family members, her pregnancy hadn’t been widely announced, and it isn’t certain what, if any, medical conditions she was aware of during her pregnancy. 

Tori Bowie

Statistically speaking, African-American women in the United States are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than their white peers. Tragically, more than 80% of pregnancy-related deaths in the United States are preventable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), racial disparities can exist in the quality of health care African-American women receive, and one of the reasons for the disparities can include implicit bias. To make it clear, it isn’t known for certain whether implicit bias played a role in Bowie’s death, and it’s quite possible the cause of her death was attributable to any number of factors. 

What is known is that implicit bias, which is a form of bias against a particular group of people that occurs automatically and unintentionally, affects judgments, decisions, and behaviors. What’s more, implicit biases are pervasive, and an overwhelming majority of people possess them, even people with the best intentions. Of course, implicit bias is prevalent not only in health care but also everywhere, including the workplace. 

Implicit bias in the workplace may emerge as early as the recruiting stage of the hiring process, and recruiters, hiring managers, and even the selection tools used to identify qualified candidates may favor applicants based on impermissible and unlawful factors such as age, race, sex, sexual orientation, or disability status. Even when an employer considers what appears to be neutral criteria, such as a candidate’s socioeconomic status, whether the candidate attended a “good” or an “elite” college or university, or the location of the candidate’s residence, these factors can still potentially lead to a negative and disparate impact on protected groups. 

Addressing Implicit Biases in the Workplace

What can employers do to address implicit biases in the workplace? In an age when many top companies are embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, employers should consider these everyday practices:

  • Use multiple referral sources to reach qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds, such as attending job fairs sponsored by diverse organizations.
  • Avoid insisting a degree must be from a “prestigious” or an “elite” school or university. (There are many reasons individuals don’t attend “prestigious” schools, and level of intellect and ability isn’t necessarily one of them.)
  • When reviewing a candidate’s online application, use tools that are capable of filtering out names and addresses. (Studies show people with “white names” receive more interview callbacks than those with African-American-sounding names.)
  • Train employees on how to identify and combat implicit bias, and hold leaders responsible.
  • Evaluate workplace flexibility options to attract caregivers, such as single parents or older workers caring for an aging parent.
  • Regularly conduct anonymous surveys encouraging employees to share their workplace experiences.

In short, implicit biases exist and can have a negative impact in the workplace. Employers should therefore take steps to be intentionally inclusive and make conscious efforts to take a stand against unconscious biases.

Erica Johnson is an attorney at FordHarrison. Prior to joining FordHarrison as an associate, Erica worked as a summer associate in three different firms. She worked as a summer associate in the labor and employment division of a large hospital and as a summer associate for a large global paper goods company. Before pursuing her legal career, Erica earned a master’s degree in Human Resources Management. She has over 13 years’ experience in human resources specializing in Affirmative Action and OFCCP compliance.  

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