Bias. It’s a buzz word within the diversity and inclusion world today, and said to be one of the main reasons for gender & minority disparity in the workplace. But despite the awareness of the problems, we are still more frequently choosing silence and status quo over having the difficult conversation with our coworkers, family/friends or even more challenging, within ourselves.
I’ve been on the forefront of making the workplace a more comfortable space for my colleagues for almost 15 years. And prior to that, informally within my friend groups and family. I get a pang in my stomach when someone feels left out. I’m an empath, I feel for (and with) them and am naturally inclined to do everything in my power to help them feel better (which is why my career has shifted substantially over time from finance & spreadsheets to teaching global trainings at a Fortune 100 firm to 1:1 coaching and consulting full time). As much as I thought I picked up on most nuances, I still have much more to learn, and more importantly, unlearn. There’s so much happening beneath the surface of our office interactions, within our unconscious programming, that we all can learn.
It all begins with having empathy for others, humility in ourselves and giving others the benefit of the doubt - i.e. most people do not intend to hurt people through their words or actions; sometimes this first step can be really hard to embody. We have to be willing to not only admit when we are wrong, but when we have been personally offended or have witnessed discrimination in the office against one of our co-workers. We all have gut instincts about right and wrong and we need to start choosing what’s right, even though it may not be the popular action. In the wise words of Brene Brown, we must “choose courage over comfort.”
I’ve led dozens of workshops and panels over the past few years around women’s empowerment and bias; between these groups and my hundreds of 1:1 clients, I’ve witnessed that many of these conversations are happening in safe spaces, but only some of them are executed back in the office.
Why? The #1 reason is fear.
Fear of getting fired, fear of not getting that promotion we want, fear of being isolated or being the only one, fear of being blacklisted within an industry, fear of asking for too much, fear of being accused for something that doesn’t actually exist (aka you’re crazy) and the list goes on… In some cases, fear of physical or emotional safety is a key factor, and if this is the case for you, make sure you have a strong support system in place (reach out to organizations mentioned below for resources).
These fears (and patriarchical systems) are centuries old. They’re extremely difficult to break through - oppression is real and the layers of discrimination (whether intentional or otherwise) are at times categorized as abuse or neglect. The severity of the suffering by so many is unjust and uncovering our own individual truths of how much of our lives have been wrongly influenced by people who don’t look or think like us can be an extremely vulnerable and painful process.
So how do we combat fear? Drive more awareness, educate and support each other. You don’t have to do this alone. Develop programs in your office, participate in events outside the office, team up with like-minded coworkers & HR. Times are changing, slowly but surely, but the more of us who participate and speak up, the faster change will happen.
We are now living in a time where we can see possibility. Thanks to the internet, we have resources at our fingertips. We follow movements on Instagram promoting just this; we see organizations like Women Employed, Black Lives Matter, LeanIn.org, Human Rights Campaign, ACLU and so many others committing to breaking down injustice and biases because bias is one of the key reasons such inequality still exists. We have to have hope in order to make change, so immerse yourself in the movements and remember you don’t have to be an expert in order to make even the slightest amount of change. It all counts.
After recently leading a LeanIn.org “50 Ways to Fight Bias” workshop at WeWork in Chicago, I want to share some examples we used to help illustrate how all of us can become more aware of ourselves and others in the workplace in order to promote true equality:
- Unconscious bias: A colleague says they’re glad to see so many women in leadership at your company. In reality, only 2 out of 15 senior leaders are women. When it comes to women in leadership, people tend to be too satisfied with the status quo: 45% of men and 28% of women think women are well represented when only 1 in 10 senior leaders at their company is a woman.
- Don’t be afraid to point out the statistics - we have to remind people what actual equality looks like.
- Double Discrimination bias: You’re talking to a woman of color on your team. A coworker from another team joins you and assumes she is much more junior than she really is. Research shows that we strongly associate men with leadership—but not always women. Women are twice as likely as men to be mistaken for someone much more junior—and women of color are the most likely to experience this.
- Go ahead and correct your coworker to tell them her actual role and what an impact her last project has had on the firm.
- Affinity Bias: You decide to mentor someone because they remind you of yourself. Because of this bias, we tend to prefer the company of others who are like us. This can lead us to invest more in people who remind us of ourselves, perhaps because we assume these relationships will feel more comfortable.
- Get a bit uncomfortable, reach out to someone who doesn’t look like you, but still shows drive to grow at work; see how you can help them grow their careers and influence others to climb the ranks.
- Paternal/LGBTQI: Someone complains to you that a new dad on the team is taking too much of his allotted family leave. Working fathers can face pushback for spending time with their kids. They tend to receive lower performance ratings and experience steeper reductions in future earnings than mothers who take the same amount of leave. Much like maternal bias, this pushback is rooted in gender stereotypes. Moms are expected to be more committed to family and less to their careers. But the reverse is true for fathers, and when they go against that expectation by prioritizing family, they are penalized.
- Point out what’s happening - a man is being penalized for helping his family, when in fact he may be empowering his partner rise up at work - we need to help people see raising children is part of being human and is important to be present parents.
Did you find this article helpful? Send the link to your colleagues, forward it to HR as an idea for a future training or workshop. Come from a place of empathy in your note (i.e. “I didn’t realize I had a particular bias until I read this - I want to share it with everyone in the office to make it a more comfortable work environment for all!)”