Over the last few years, I’ve seen an increase in articles in the media about gender, racial and other kinds of bias in the workplace.
In my personal life, I have far more discussions about this topic than in prior years.
All of this discussion helps to cast a light on an important topic.
I’ve been familiar with this issue for well over 20 years, as it was the focus of my master's degree at Stanford.
After reading the research on gender bias, I decided to give my three daughters traditional “boy” nicknames, so “Mike” instead of “Michaela,” as an example.
(Research showed that if you take two identical resumes and merely changed the name — the resume with the male name gets rated as more competent by human resource professionals than the one with a female name.)
Lately, the research has focused on Silicon Valley.
The Silicon Valley culture is quite heavily gender biased. But more importantly, the community lacks awareness that it’s biased.
This is the far bigger problem.
To be human is to be biased.
It is how our brains are instinctively wired.
If you see and hear a large animal growl at you, your bias tells you it’s a threat.
By default, the human brain takes mental shortcuts all the time. It’s how we get through our day.
I am biased.
You are biased.
Everyone is biased.
The difference between me and some others is that I’m aware that I’m biased and willing to admit it.
Bias is perceiving others differently based on appearances.
Discrimination is treating others differently based on appearances.
While initial bias can’t be prevented, it can be overcome to prevent unintended or unfair discrimination.
Let me explain with an example.
The other day, I was visiting a community that has very few racial minorities.
I saw an African-American gentleman wearing a hooded sweatshirt walking down the street.
My initial bias was "he doesn’t fit in this neighborhood." Objectively speaking, I hadn’t seen someone African-American in that area in 4 years.
I hate to admit it, but I wondered if he was a threat.
Then I caught myself...
Wait, am I reacting that way because of the way he’s dressed?
Am I reacting that way because of his race? Because he’s a man?
Would I instinctively respond the same way if he were a white man?
Would I instinctively respond the same way if he were an African-American woman?
What if he were 40 years older? Or merely a 10-year-old child?
I then asked myself...
Was he acting in a belligerent way? No.
Was he obviously carrying any weapons or anything that could be used as a weapon? No.
The dude was going for a walk. Duh.
I realized that my initial bias was unfair and unreasonable.
I made the conscious choice to adjust my own bias before I let it become discrimination.
So I decided to say, “Hi!"
I think he was startled that I said, “Hi.”
He replied with, “Good day,” and we both went about our day.
When you accept the premise that you’re biased (even if you don’t intend to be), you can compensate for your own bias tendencies.
For example, when I review resumes now, I deliberately try to avoid looking at the person’s name.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters is whether or not they’re qualified to do the job.
If someone with a Harvard degree says something that doesn’t make logical sense to me, my bias is to assume he knows what he’s talking about and I must be confused.
But then I ask myself, “If a high school dropout said the same thing, would I ask a clarifying question?" If the answer is "yes," then I adjust and ask the question anyway.
Conversely, if someone with no formal credentials says something challenging to me, my bias might be to dismiss the person’s comment for lack of validity.
But I catch myself: Am I dismissing the comment because it’s logically not valid? Or am I letting my perception of their credentials color my assessment of the idea itself?
To prevent bias from manifesting as discrimination, simply ask yourself these questions and adjust as appropriate.
Even if you adjust for your own biases, you might consider adjusting for other people’s biases too.
For example, in U.S. business culture, men tend to express overconfidence in their abilities, while women tend to express under-confidence or neutral confidence in their abilities.
In the U.S., young boys are socialized and learn bravado. It’s a way we’re taught to communicate with other boys.
Young girls aren’t taught bravado, and oftentimes such behavior results in social sanctions from other girls.
In Silicon Valley, one factor (usually male) decision makers use in granting venture capital funding is the entrepreneur's self-assessment of his or her own chances for success.
A man might say, “I can absolutely make this work.”
A woman might say, “There are several tough challenges, and I’m hopeful to overcome them.”
When you’re aware of this kind of bias, you have to consider the possibility that the man and woman may be over- or under-stating their confidence in the outcome.
Neither self-perception may be indicative of the actual likelihood of success.
If you’re the self-aware venture capitalist, you’d want to ask yourself: If a man presented this business plan, would I have a different reaction? (And vice versa.)
I’m glad to see so much discussion on this topic today.
Paradoxically, the only way to avoid bias impacting the workplace is to acknowledge its existence.
The solution isn’t to pretend it doesn’t exist. The solution is to acknowledge that it exists widely and to compensate for it.