Unconscious bias affects many, if not all, of us at work every day. Our career growth can be slowed or halted because of it. Our ability to enjoy our time at work can be affected by it. Our overall happiness can be destroyed because of it. But it’s not something anyone is doing to us. These biases are natural and exist in everyone. We are all biased. We’re biased about others and ourselves. It’s part of being human. And it’s no one’s fault.
This, though, is a challenge we can meet. I believe we can create true equality in the workplace. The first step is not to get rid of bias (that’s just not going to happen), but to become aware of our biases. If we can become aware of ourselves, we can commit to put in the effort to not allow bias to influence our decisions and actions.
First, we need to acknowledge that we perpetuate a world where these issues are taboo to discuss and many are convinced they’re not happening.So every word of this sentence is a link to a different source of informationthat shows this fact, again and again.
We need to start talking about bias, and we need to talk about it where we experience it the most: at work. No workplace is immune. Employers, it’s time to encourage your employees to start having open, healthy, productive conversations about inequality and bias at work.
What we need to talk about.
While laws are in place to protect from discrimination, they do not protect against bias and stereotypes. Awareness is the key to solving this problem. However, most of us don’t feel comfortable talking about issues of inequality while we’re at work.
Again, it’s important to acknowledge there is no blame to be placed for the existence of bias. It’s perfectly natural. Believe it or not, bias is a good thing,used for our survival, we just need to be careful what we do with it.
One of my experiences with a pattern: I've been propositioned multiple times by strangers while waiting at the crosswalks going to and from the parking garage to the office. Sometimes the men are obvious, sometimes they’re subtle. One super classy time, a man asked me “Can I have some?”, when asked “some of what?”, he said “some of you.” It’s uncomfortable. It can be frightening when someone does this, especially when they appear to be stronger than you.
The resulting bias: This pattern has made me extremely aware of those around me while waiting at the crosswalks. Obviously, not everyone is going to proposition me. But that feeling is there nonetheless. That feeling is bias. It’s that part of me that expects it to happen again, and the cautiousness it inspires will help keep me safe.
Unfortunately, we don’t control which patterns our brains store. We can’t tell our brains that some patterns are just from media and stereotypes that don’t serve a useful purpose. So, we have to work hard to understand where our thoughts come from. We need to be able to tell the difference between afeeling that a man at the crosswalk may proposition me, and referencing data points. Is someone actually doing or saying something to me that I’m not comfortable with? We need to learn and practice reserving judgment based on only a feeling or an assumption.
Let’s accept we have biases, accept that these biases are natural, and forgive each other and ourselves for having them. We are not doing this on purpose, but we do need to make an effort to actively avoid allowing them to influence us.
Why we don’t talk about it.
Fear of being called the f-word — feminist. Fear of defensiveness and hostility. Fear of making our employers think we’re implying they’re breaking equality laws. Fear our coworkers and friends will think we’re insulting them. Fear we’ll be seen as complainers or weak. Fear that people will think we’re over-sharing about a personal issue. A lot of fear.
In some circles feminism is still a taboo word. One of my coworkers said to me not long ago, “I’m not a feminist, but…” in the same way someone might say “I’m not racist, but…” as if being a feminist is a bad thing to be. A feminist is someone who believes in the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes , that’s it. Anti-feminists have been very efficient at convincing the masses that feminists are man-haters who want to oppress men, instead of striving for true equality. This is not true. Many groups have had occasional extremists act in the name of a cause they didn't fully understand, but that’s no reason to allow those very few to define the whole.
If the topic of bias and inequality is not approached delicately, it could result in defensiveness and hostility. However, if we aren't placing blame, and we’re patient and understanding, some may be surprised how receptive people can be. Studies have shown that when men were confronted about gender bias, they consistently responded in a positive way, became more mindful of the behavior, resulting in a closer relationship with the one confronting them.
I was recently talking with a coworker. I pointed out to him that he had interrupted me multiple times so far in our conversation. He wasn't upset. He acknowledged it and didn't interrupt me the rest of the day. He wasn't interrupting me on purpose, he just wasn't aware that he was doing it. Men and women have been raised in such a way that this has become a common thing. But by simply letting him be aware of it, he stopped, expressed gratitude for letting him know, and appeared more than happy to pay closer attention to his actions. And I’m willing to bet that he paid attention to himself in this way during the next conversation he had with someone.
It’s important to make explicit that these sorts of discussions aren't implying organizations are breaking equality laws… it’s illegal to consciouslymake a number of decisions based on gender, but we’re talking about theunconscious bias that leads to the glass ceiling and day-to-day hardships. Most people genuinely believe they’re not making any decisions or actions based on bias, because the brain is surprisingly good at convincing us of that.
When we talk about bias, we’re not complaining, we’re exposing. We’re not talking about something personal, we’re talking about something that affects all of us. We’re talking about the reality we coexist in every day.
Why we need to talk about it.
Every time we experience the repercussions of bias and don’t speak up about it, we become part of the problem.
We suffer the effects of bias so often because some people don’t realize how often it happens. Some think these issues no longer exist, because if they did, surely they would have heard more about it. The issue continues because of a lack of awareness, and the unawareness continues because we’re afraid to talk about it. We’re stuck in a loop and we need to break out of it.
An example from Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In about how simple awareness can solve a problem:
Google has an unusual system where engineers nominate themselves for promotions, and the company found that men nominated themselves more quickly than women. The Google management team shared this data openly with the female employees, and women’s self-nomination rates rose significantly, reaching roughly the same rates as men’s.
Men were not stopping women from self-nominating. Many women are biased toward themselves when it comes to their qualification for a job. By simply letting the employees be aware of the fact this was happening, it inspired a great change.
If we could just start talking about the way bias affects us, if we could bring transparency to the issue, everyone could begin to recognize how often issues arise from it. We could turn common biases into common knowledge, keeping us all more aware of ourselves as we interact with one another.Awareness is the key to dealing with this.
How to talk about it.
Bias and equality are very sensitive topics, so it’s important to approach them delicately, without blame or accusations, with patience and understanding. If we approach the topic aggressively or offensively, then of course others will mirror us and respond aggressively or defensively. Remember, people don’t have biases on purpose, it’s natural. The conversation is to help people be aware that bias exists and that it affects people. We’re just asking people to think critically. The goal is not to put anyone down, but to help raise everyone up to equal ground.
So, what can employers do to change this?
- Acknowledge that bias exists.
- Let your employees know that it’s okay to talk about it in a healthy and productive way.
- Help guide employees on best practices for talking about sensitive topics in healthy and productive ways.
- Conduct an anonymous survey to measure the equality temperature of your company on a regular basis.
- Provide a way for employees to anonymously share their experiences. Consider implementing an internal webpage employees can post experiences to. Or a way they can anonymously send someone an email to ask for advice and share the Q&A regularly with everyone.
- Start an in-depth bias training program with regular workshopscustomized based on the survey feedback.
- Provide educational tools to help employees understand themselves and others.
- Offer regular meetups for employees to get together to share their experiences with one another and begin to work together to solve the issues.
- Set aside time every day for employees to stop by to get advice from someone whose role is to build relationships with them to create an open and safe atmosphere.
- Review your stats: How many people of different groups (gender, age, race, religion, etc.) do you have at the company? How many are leaders? How many apply/request for promotions? What percentage of those who apply get the promotion? What are the data points for why they did or did not get promotions?
- Perform internal audits: Review the resumes managers are dismissing without interviews. Require data points on why a candidate was not chosen for an interview. Review performance reviews. Are certain groups averaging high or low on the performance scale? Are all groups receiving the same type of feedback (typically men receive technical feedback, while women receive personality feedback)?
- Implement Holacracy, an organizational structure that offers someunique protections for your employees.
- Let applicants be aware of your company’s policy on handling bias. Include a provision to be receptive to these conversations in your company’s hiring requirements.
- When you get to a good place, don’t get comfortable, keep the momentum going.
- Encourage your employees regularly to continue talking about the ways bias affects them.
It might be hard at first. It could get uncomfortable. It might be awkward. People can, on occasion, get defensive when discussing bias. But if we can just get through The Dip, being open about it will become the new normal.The conversations will become commonplace and usual. Bias will get the exposure we need. Transparency into the issues bias causes will reduce the amount of issues caused by bias.
“Our voices are loudest when we raise them together.” Laura Bates of the everyday sexism project.