We each are born with filters, some innate and others learned. How we see and how we react are based on the schema that we use to evaluate each and every situation. We look for patterns, commonalities, things we recognize, and filter it through that primitive pattern of triggers to tell us to run or stay. Bias is in all of us. It’s not bad until it is. Shaming and blaming doesn’t get anyone anywhere. I’ve been learning a lot about bias lately between the six-month series sponsored by Leadership Greater Washington and is co-led by Howard Ross and Dr. Karyn Trader-Leigh an executive coach. I’m also a student with an eCornell Certificate program on DEI, it’s made me do a lot of deep thinking and led to hard conversations across diverse groups of people. Howard recently re-released his book about “Every Day Bias” and shared his insights from over 30+ years as a diversity trainer and his firm is Udarta. Here’s what I learned when I looked inward to my past experiences and examined them with a new lens for bias.
EMPATHY CAN REDUCE BIAS
First, let me preface my experience by saying, I recognize that I have many privileges and I can only speak about my intermittent experiences of being part of subgroups based on gender or religion. By sharing this example, I want you to understand that it was through this experience that I recognized, on a micro-level what I couldn’t possibly comprehend when you have to experience racism or bias each and every moment of your life. When I was 8 my parents moved us around the world to Bangkok, Thailand. I wore a school uniform, learned to play soccer, and stuck out like a sore thumb. Worse things could happen. Eventually, we returned to the USA. I was the only girl playing soccer and so my mom put me on a boys team because Title IX said so. I had to prove myself and gain acceptance from the boys. Both things had to happen for us to be a team. This experience shaped how I viewed the sexes in the workplace and how I experienced life from the non-dominant group. I still need and want to listen and learn more about what it’s like to be discriminated against so I can be a better ally. Here’s what I learned that helped me start to make sense of it.
Being an outsider some of the time (we are part of different subsets of the population), or not part of the privileged group actually has pluses. Howard Ross explained in his presentation to Google, how those outside the mainstream group have more mirror neurons. Mirror neurons allow an individual to be more empathic and thus better able to relate to others. This ability to be more empathic actually means life hurts a lot more, but it also allows me to relate to others better. If we think about how empathy and bias interact we can see that by being able to relate to how others feel we are able to remove some innate bias that we may not have known existed. When we see others as humans just like us, that can break down barriers and bias at the same time. As a person who often looked in from the outside, I gained empathy, could relate to different kinds of people more readily and this has led me to a career working with people and helping them find the best professional pathways.
Let’s look more closely at bias, and let’s remove the negative connotations to the word. Bias is normal and where we come from and our life experiences shape how we see the world. We can even inherit bias from trauma and multi-generational traditions. What is negative about bias is ignoring it or remaining unaware. If we lean into the discomfort and look at the different biases in each of us, we can actually learn from them. The ability to become conscious and aware of our blind spots enables us to do something about them. In the workplace, this can mean examining our system for hiring, retaining staff, or promoting talent. It’s important to dig deep and consider our childhood experiences and how they impact us as adults in our personal lives and in our professional lives.
WHY CONSIDER BIAS
According to Howard’s book and presentation, diversity is a great goal, but unless we are inclusive, not much will change for the long run. We can decide to diversify an all-male workplace or an all-white workplace, but if the team does not see the value or buy into it, we are not creating an inclusive environment. During the eCornell course I recently took on DEI topics, we learned that companies with engaged diverse workplaces are more successful-meaning they are healthier with less turnover and increased profits. If the majority of an organization doesn’t learn about bias and how it can be detrimental to the organization, no matter how many people are hired that look different from the existing workforce, their ability to be included directly impacts the success of the company. We can educate our workforce and make people aware of unconscious bias and that’s how we can start to change the systems. It’s only part of an on-going process.
One example I learned about that really struck me was fascinating and something that happens daily. While at home or at work, we have to make millions of decisions, to shower or not, what to feed the kids or what to eat ourselves, what we wear, how we say hello to our co-workers, and the list goes on to bigger and more complex decisions. For most of these decisions, we aren’t even aware of how or why we make them. Instead of acting from our “Fast Brain” or on an instinctual level where Howard says we make determinations (quick decisions) and then rationalize the outcomes.
Some of the decisions are fine, but others are not and they are all filled with our own bias. We can be making small or large mistakes that impact how we are perceived or interact with other people. Microaggressions fall into this category. Who we chose to ask for directions or get into the elevator with and where we stand also are “Fast Brain” decisions. Some are negative and some are positive, it’s the awareness that we are looking for or consciously thinking about our decisions that matter.
We want to build in more “Slow Brain thinking” where we build in a pause, see the bias, and make a choice that is based on rational thought. Daniel Kahneman coined these terms and discusses them further in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. Next time you go to a business function (in person or virtually) pause before you decide who to approach and pick someone that doesn’t look like you or who you didn’t initially gravitate towards. I was at a Career Summit for AAAS and was part of a panel discussion for STEM Fellows. They had lunch beforehand and gave me the option to eat in the speaker’s room or join the 150+ professionals who were attending the meeting. The room was full and there was a strong buzz of conversation. I took a deep breath and decided to meet some of the participants. With a pause, I looked around me, and decided to join a partially filled table that was a mix of young and gray-haired, and a mix of white and people of color, and sat down to introduce myself. That’s how you start to change things.
STRIVE TO BE BETTER
I’ve been recruiting for over 25 years now. In the past two years, I have made new friendships across the D/M/V region during my time with LGW. I’ve continued to take seminars and the Anti-Racism series with LGW continually opens my eyes to what I know and what I don’t know. The course at Cornell, while basic, touches on topics that are evergreen and need attention. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” Change doesn’t happen overnight. To make systemic long-reaching change we must examine our basic bias, see it, and work to overcome it. An organization is handicapping itself if it cannot attract, retain, and grow a diverse workforce.
The only way to do this is to create an inclusive mindset where we periodically refresh ourselves over the course of this journey. We gravitate to what we know and we have filters built-in from our life experiences which we can’t control. What we can control is not focusing on the shame of bias, but we must embrace it, be aware of it, and continue to fight to overcome it. Read more about these ideas and for a guidebook to building diverse and inclusive workplaces check out Howard Ross’ book, “Everyday Bias, Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgement in our Daily Lives.” Dolly Chugh’s book on “The Person You Mean to Be” is also a wonderful resource full of great examples and exercises to practice. To build some empathy and understanding I’d recommend Ta Nehise Coates letter to his son in his book, “Between the World and Me,” he was able to allow me to walk in his shoes and gain a taste of what it’s like to be a Black man in the USA.