Understanding Unconscious Bias

A father and his son are involved in a horrific car crash and the man died at the scene. But when the child arrived at the hospital and was rushed into the operating room, the surgeon pulled away and said: “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son.

How can that be?

— the answer is on the bottom of this post —


One of the big cultural changes I see us making in our corporate and social lives is that we are allowing ourselves to open up about who we are as people in an honest and vulnerable way. This has demonstrated itself in new ways in the workplace. Today I’ll talk about one of them…

I have Unconscious Bias.

My group @ work has been studying how to retain female and ethnic minority talent. It’s been an interesting study with some surprising twists and turns (e.g. starting a family and travel are not coming up as reasons women leave at a higher rate then men). Instead, we’ve started to focus and educate ourselves on Unconscious Bias (UB).

Our unconscious brain processes large amounts of data (more than 200,000 times more data points that the conscious brain can handle) looking for patterns. If our unconscious brain can wire things together, then it can process those data points faster and move onto new things.

Example in practice: My brain has seen male surgeons so many times that Surgeon and Male has been hardwired together. When I read the riddle at the top of this post, the mother being the surgeon never crossed my mind. It’s called the Surgeon’s Dilemma, and is a common way to illustrate UB.

People at Harvard are studying ways to measure our unconscious biases. They have created a series of quick tests (that take about 15 minutes to complete) that help you measure your biases towards many different social groups: disabled, elders, females, races, LGBT, etc. To understand yourself and your biases in this safe environment, without someone using the word “bigot” or “racist” or “misogynist.” How powerful. How open. How vulnerable.

I took the Implicit Association Test for women and science/math and my heart sank when I realized I had an unconscious bias towards women (Ouch). Me – someone who is consciously:

  1. Convinced my career has been impacted by UB
  2. Volunteering for our North America team studying the subject
  3. An advocate not only for female executives, but now for mother (and father :)) executives in my company

And I minored in finance… Yet I have unconscious bias towards women and science/math. (Ouch. Again.)

Where does it come from? I have always been influenced by what I see, not by what people tell me. I’ve had the most support in the world. My people tell me I can do anything. But I see that women CAN’T do anything. I SEE it. Every day. And when they start to succeed, we tend to tear them down. So I to, believe women can’t do everything. And unfortunately, there are limited examples (I would call them “token success stories”) – not enough to train my brain otherwise.

What I love about this is that it is broadening the conversations we are having in the workplace. Before, we’d talk about diversity and the white male would feel like the “bad guy” – it created an us vs. them mentality and frankly, did little good. Now – we are ALL “the bad guys.” We all have biases that we need to understand and manage. It frankly is making the conversation of why we see so few female / ethnically diverse leaders to an academic cultural conversation. It is fascinating. It is evolution.

Spotting Unconscious Bias in our culture

It is so subtle, it is hard to spot. And it is in that grey area that even when you do spot it, 50% (or more) of people will tell you to stop being so sensitive. Or politically correct. Or *insert other one-liner that people use to belittle your thoughts here*.

I was on a call about the advancements in robotics this week (it was fascinating, but that’s another conversation). When talking about Artificial Intelligence during the discussion, the left side of the slide showed AI assistants. They were all named after females (highlighted on the slide: Siri, Viv, Amelia). The right side had AI masterminds (highlighted on the slide: Watson)

Is it coincidence that all of the assistants have female names and the mastermind has a male name? Maybe. Or maybe it’s cultural UB in practice. And now my little brain once again sees female = assistant, male = leader and I risk hardwiring those things together. We need to SEE more examples of female = leader so that our brain stops making faulty assumptions. My brain included.

P.S. Viv is the new Siri. She was announced this week. First, I hope the technology sucks. Second, even if it doesn’t suck, maybe we should petition a name change because of unconscious bias concerns. There is absolutely no secret motive behind this request. 🙂

Does this change how I mother Viv?

It does – I want Viv to SEE a diverse group of women and men through her life. I want her to see male nurses and female statisticians. I want her to interact with people working outside of the cultural norms of my generation. I want her to interact with pioneers. I will seek them out and bring them into my circle.

— The surgeon is the boy’s mother —

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