SheSays Think about your Biases

[estimated reading time 5 minutes]

An evening of drenched mostly-female wanderers from the tech world escaped from the sudden thunderstorm witnessed an exploration of bias — something we all have but rarely like to admit. In ThoughtWorks’ (@thoughtworks) Manchester HQ, a collection of speakers enlightened an audience to how bias is built, its effects on us and how it pervades within the workspace and manifests as microaggressions. Another @SheSaysMCR event organized by @ThatGirlVim was a real success — perhaps talking about social responsibility in a room full of social activists is a bit of preaching to the choir but if nobody else is listening, it’s up to the choir to sing that message into daily life sometimes!

Christina Connelly (@Digital_Orange), UX & Design head at DigitalBridge (@DigitalBridgeHQ) opened the topic with a series of descriptions, personalities as we wrote our impressions of who they might be — their gender, age, race, perhaps even species. She challenged our assumptions, showing that perhaps even the best-meaning openness is not a prescription for avoiding bias and that there is nothing that can be done, nor should there be, about the fact that we all have perspective. What makes a difference to how we interact with the world around us, in our personal lives and at work, is what we do with the second thought, the third, and the actions that result from them. Our impressions might be inaccurate but they’re automatic. It’s what we do when we choose that makes a difference and that’s the separation between bias and stereotype, impression and prejudice. We’re all humans, she said, and that means we’re biased. We need to stop pretending we’re not, embrace our perspective and learn from them so we can overcome the disaster of letting bias run rampant with our emotions, thoughts and actions.

ThoughtWorks’ diversity champion (with her trademark blue hair in fine form) Amy Lynch (@Amy_Lynch) continued with the theme describing a way to overcome unconscious bias — the prejudice that hides in that time before thinking, what leads us to make decisions until we make ourselves aware of it. She presented a three-step approach. Look, challenge, do. She invited us with some examples to look around us and figure out what our biases are (not to mention those in our friends and coworkers) and see when we might have a negative or positive view on something that doesn’t really make sense. Are we predisposed to like women? Be afraid of those with little education or money? Generally find annoying those who wear well-pressed ties and come suited, booted and fresh from the Russell Group? (I admit, these are three of mine…) Then comes the hard part, she informs us, not simply to figure out where these ideas come from, although that’s interesting in far too many ways to explore, but to challenge them and see how they may be useful and may not be useful in each situation they are making their appearance in. Then action seems relatively simple — once we’ve challenged our biases, the right action should be far more obvious and we can do our best to be, if nothing else, better humans (or cats, I suppose).

She then went on to discuss feedback biases, especially in leadership. What do we think of a leader, especially in business and politics, as someone who is loud, direct, aggressive, driven, outgoing and passionate to the point of painful. In short, we think of a man. And women are described as team players, empathic, kind and gentle. It is an interesting reflection on our society that the things we’d like to see not only in ourselves but in others are mostly characteristics traditionally used to describe women. And they’re usually wonderful characteristics. But, and here’s the issue, not only are they unhelpful (which is a significant problem when you get a review of what you’ve done in a role and have no idea what any of them mean because, not to be too direct, they’re meaningless character descriptions rather than important to the job, the actions and the interactions you’re thinking about improving) they’re not things we think of as leadership material. To be a leader, we expect you have to have the qualities of, simply, a brash ass. And be a dude. Not that women are always one thing or another, or men, for that matter. But it’s definitely how we’re described!

Annie Mbako (@nieniedoo) from The Heroworx Institute dived deeper into the idea of social initiatives like diversity and inclusion. She invited us to reflect on our own programming, how repetition turns an idea into an assumption and how we act without necessarily turning impressions into thoughts — especially not before those thoughts become regrets for having done things that were rather less socially-conscious than we’d like to admit we were capable of — we woke pseudo-millennials are a great lot for criticizing the biases in society but not quite going far enough to subvert them in our own daily lives. What do we do when we really stick out, when we don’t fit in even with where our companies are going? What if we’re really on the negative side of institutional bias? Her answer is exactly what you’d expect but it’s not what we’ve been paying attention to — which is, rather, the point. We need to think. A psych study informs us that people almost always act on our first impressions, even if we manage to rein ourselves in later. Unless we stop to think — not just about our bias but about ourselves and our bodies. Using meditation and mindfulness to calm fleeting thoughts and still our minds to the point that we don’t act without at least a few considerations as to why we’re feeling how we’re feeling changes bias from negative stimulus to positive self-reflection. In all the choices we make every day, she challenges us, if we can even be slightly more aware of what we’re doing, we may be able to make vast improvements in the results and, while we’re at it, simply be more present in our lives. While she was at it, of course, she couldn’t pass up an opportunity to remind us that she is a black woman and that we shouldn’t be afraid to notice that, what that makes people think and why we are so scared to address the obvious about people and what it might stimulate in our own minds.

Rosie Turner (@rosie_h_turner), co-founder of InChorus (@workinchorus) spends her days fighting bias within organizations and firms both in her company and with her talks but it’s a different kind of bias. It’s the institutional mistake that has resulted from centuries of giving in to microaggressions as if they don’t exist and pretending that the more we become like expectations (how white, how male, how western, how insular but outgoing, leadership potential compared to caring, since caring is something only women do, it seems, and women aren’t welcome in boardrooms unless they’re cleaning them or posing questions for someone else to hear the answers to) the less we will be marginalized, sexually objectified and harassed and otherwise simply not made welcome in a world not of glass ceilings but of casual sexism, secret racism and not-so-secret catcalls and invitations to the privacy of leaders’ offices.

Looking at bias from the perspective of data analysis, she invites us to tackle the notion of reporting and awareness at work in a more systematic way. The things that fall between the daily “are you happy here?” and, on the other extreme, whistleblowing and formal complaints, they’re often lost and unrecorded so it is easy for those in positions of authority to pretend they don’t exist, even if they know they do, simply because they don’t care and feel that such things aren’t problems, because they’re not problems for them. Building up (often anonymous) datasets for incidence reporting gives those of us who are on the receiving end of microaggressions, microinsults and thinly-veiled bias-driven action the power to say that there needs to be a change in how things happen, as only numeric data speaks this loudly and, until recently, such has simply not existed — to do a study, you need to want to know the result and, honestly, how many business leaders have historically been concerned with how someone else truly felt in their daily interactions?

All in all, the takeaway was clear. We are humans, therefore we are biased. It’s not that we need to change our instincts and our reactions inside our minds. It’s about challenging where they come from and whether they’re useful and taking those challenges, turning them into more reasonable, responsible, developed and adult reactions to the world rather than simply behaving like we don’t know the difference and pretending we’re always right, that we should never change. It’s an important, if slightly distressing, lesson!

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.