Blind to Bias

If you aren’t a white man the ensuing text may be face-palmingly obvious. But for people who look like me it might be a revelation. And that gap is precisely the point I hope to address. Unfortunately, when women or ethnic minorities speak about prejudice they are often penalized for being selfish. By contrast, white men are seen as altruistic for leading the same conversation. I deserve no such credit and I am not an expert on this issue. But without everyone's voices represented we cannot make progress as a society. So I am speaking out.

I have always believed deeply in equality. I prided myself on being an outspoken supporter of women in my life and my career. I knew women who would attest that I helped their careers. I had a gender balanced senior staff and meetings. So when I first heard the research from Lean In that forms the basis of Facebook’s Managing Bias course, I fought hard against the premise that I too could be biased or bad for women.

My resistance got even stronger when I learned that if you think you’re great for women, you’re probably even worse.

My friend and colleague Deb Liu explained it to me: "the less someone believes they are biased, the more blind they are to bias." That made reasonable sense but it struck me as a logical paradox. If that is true then the only way to avoid bias is for every person on earth to accept that they are biased.

“Exactly."

That’s some catch, I thought. I needed to understand unconscious bias better. I read up on a study done at the Columbia and NYU Business Schools that Sheryl discussed in her TED talk. Each student got the same case study to analyze. In half of the studies the primary actor was named Heidi and in the other half Howard, but they were otherwise identical. When surveyed about the study the students found both Heidi and Howard equally competent. But they found Heidi was not the type of person they would want to work for or hire. Other studies have shown that woman are just as biased against women as men are. When you hear “everyone is biased” it really means everyone.

Facebook's Global Director of Diversity Maxine Williams also taught me that this isn't just an issue facing women; it affects ethnic minorities in this country as well. Researchers in one correspondence study sent resumes in response to job listings. The resumes varied in quality from high to low. Half the resumes had stereotypically white names and half stereotypically black names. They found that “a White name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience on a [Black] resume.” The gap between the assessments actually increased as the quality of the resumes improved. All this clearly belied the notion I held that we are operating in a meritocracy.

“Okay," I told Maxine, “I accept that unconscious bias exists. I must have biases. But if I treat everyone the same, how can that be biased?"

“You might perceive yourself as treating everyone the same but even if you were it’s possible that not everyone experiences you in the same way.”

Another curveball. So even if someone treated everyone equally (which I accept is unlikely - even for someone conscious of bias), they could still be engendering bias. How could that be? Let’s consider something as unyielding as a math test. In this country women, Blacks, and Latinos are often either told explicitly or by implication that they are not as good at standardized tests or math as whites or men. The internalization of that stereotype shows up in the research. In one study researchers gave the same test to both black and white students. Half started with a question about their ethnicity but they were otherwise the same. The students had all performed comparably on prior tests. Those who were not asked about their ethnicity performed similarly regardless of race. But black students who were asked about their ethnicity did significantly worse. Researchers found similar results with women taking math tests. The biases that propagate prejudice are internalized through something called stereotype threat. And if a math test wasn’t safe from creating biased conditions, then neither was I.

As someone with a large number of favorable starting conditions (white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, etc…) I have what Peggy McIntosh dubbed an “invisible backpack” of privilege. I go into every situation with the belief that I belong. I am effectively blind to the impact these small actions, these micro aggressions, have on people who don’t share the same sense of belonging. Individually, my actions may not be “racist” or “sexist,” but taken as a whole they can reinforce a narrative already held by certain groups — including women — that they are not entirely on equal footing.

I was assuming my behavior was above reproach on the belief that I “treated everyone equally.” But even if that were true it was not actually material. The way I treated everyone could still have a chilling effect on members of certain groups. For example, I have a habit of speaking loudly, quickly, and with few pauses. Members of these groups might be slightly more likely to remain quiet in such conditions. People with relatively more privileged life experiences may have more success getting their ideas across. And all the while I could be blind to the effect my behavior was having on them because I am privileged. I am also senior and managing a large team so people defer to me making it even harder to see. I expected everyone to have the same comfort and confidence that I have in every situation.

The system isn't fair. To some degree I always knew that. But the more critical realization I made through this exploration is that even if the system somehow became fair and everyone were suddenly treated the same, it still wouldn't produce fair outcomes. Fair systems only yield fair outcomes if everyone starts in the same place. But that’s not true in society so fair systems aren’t really fair at all. They necessarily favor those with preferable starting conditions.

So we are all biased. And behaving the same in every situation is not enough to correct for that bias. What can you do about it?

To start with, you can correct for bias when you observe it. Make space for everyone around you to contribute their perspective. Ensure that there are pauses in conversation during meetings. Actively pull people into the discussion who you think may have something to contribute. Offer broad invitations like “I’d like to hear from more of the group before we move on.” Never interrupt people. When you see interruptions happen, actively intercede on behalf of the interrupted. When someone prevents you from interrupting someone else, assume good intent. These behaviors sound simple enough to describe. But they can be challenging to install as they require changing social conventions. But those social conditions are precisely what need to change to counteract bias. In my experience, if you can establish these conventions the results are immediately visible. I have gotten positive feedback from women about the change in tone of my meetings. But even more valuable than that I’ve noticed the quality of discussion has improved.

If you want to do more you can become an advocate. Actively express that you value diversity as a leader, as a manager, and in speeches and in writing. Challenge hiring managers to seek out a diverse slate of candidates. Increase the visibility and representation of women and ethnic minorities in company events and public announcements. Convey high standards and assure women and minorities of their ability to meet those standards. Proactively seek out women and other underrepresented groups to ask “how are we doing?” Then have those same conversations with everyone, especially privileged populations, because nothing can change without their participation. These changes are much harder and I’m not good at them yet. Part of writing this post is me publicly committing to being a better advocate.