Check Your Biases!

5 ways to stop discriminating in the workplace

16Jan

James Damore is a name which has been in the news a lot recently following a controversial and somewhat offensive, 10-page manifesto. In it, he posits that the 'differences in biology' between men and women, such as their 'higher levels of neuroticism', is the reason for the lack of female representation among engineers.

He was fired for his comments and has since proceeded to sue Alphabet, Google's parent company, for what he called 'discrimination against white, conservative males'.

'The culture is very left-leaning and just intolerant of anyone that holds a differing opinion," he said in an interview with NBC.

Whether you agree with his point that a company, which according to their latest diversity report, is still 56% white male, is also discriminating against white males, is for you to decide. However, he has inadvertently brought up an important question; Is anyone exempt from discrimination?

This is where the nuanced differences between actual prejudice and unconscious biases come into play. We all have biases, that's just the way the human mind works. Nobel prize winner, Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University estimates that between 80 to 90% of the mind works unconsciously. 'The actual number isn’t important or even possible to derive,' he said. 'The point is that experts agree that the ability to have conscious access to our minds is quite low.'

This should cause everyone to worry a little bit, especially if you view yourself as quite an open-minded, prejudice-free individual. We are programmed to recognize patterns, so when we meet someone new, we immediately, unconsciously, take stock of their physical attributes; race, gender, age, social class, attractiveness etc. We then associate these attributes with whatever pre-existing stereotypes we have formed over our individual life experiences up to that point.

These aren't always inherently negative, but they do influence how we relate to other people. In situations like recruitment, it can have a significant impact as so much instinct unconsciously goes into judging whether someone is right for a team over the course of an interview.

So while you can't turn your instincts off, you can do everything in your power to try and make sure your instincts aren't inadvertently steering you towards bigotry.

1- Know thy self

One of the biggest issues with biases is that it's surprisingly hard to see them in ourselves. So the first step towards course-correcting this is just accepting that having biases is inevitable. It can then further help to try and acknowledge how deep your biases go. There are online quizzes which test your biases towards different genders and races. I did the implicit association test for genders and was quite surprised to find out that despite my fairly progressive stances, I am still quite...well, sexist.

You can't fix a problem you don't know exists. Biases lead to prejudices and ignorance only helps reinforce it.

2- Biases are learned

Remember that these biases have been instilled through a lifetime of societal training. Society is biased and it infiltrates every facet of our day to day lives. This means simply saying you want to be better isn't enough, you need to actively work to rectify the problem on a subconscious level.

One interesting technique quoted in Mahzarin Banaji's book 'Blindspot' deals with the power of using counter-stereotyping imagery. She started by changing her screensaver to images which illuminated the infinite diversity of humanity to counter the biases formed from her daily interactions. She especially steered towards images which were really counter-stereotypical; a short bald man who was a senior executive was one of her favorites.

Doing this can be surprisingly helpful because when biases aren't born from hate, they are just placeholders for opinions we unwittingly formed at one point in our lives. Doing this opens your mind up to the fact that we all live in a bubble, and our bubbles might not be completely representative of the world outside of them.

3- Stop being part of the problem

Every time we hear a racist joke or are present when a female colleague is belittled or objectified and we do nothing about it, we are contributing towards the cycle of discrimination. Few of us want to be our office's designated social justice warrior, but it is so important that we all make a concerted effort to make workplaces more inclusive places. It's ultimately better for everyone.

Most peoples biases are hidden from themselves. While it might make for an awkward conversation at first, respectfully pointing out inappropriateness in your office will have a positive effect because most people want to become more self-aware. They definitely don't want people to think they are prejudiced because they likely don't see themselves that way. Even David Duke, former head of the KKK doesn't like being called a racist...

4- Communicate better

As I said, a lot of our biases are born from the society we live in. A big example of this is the language we use. To your average person, man or woman, walking into a meeting and saying 'hey guys' is perfectly normal, but it can have subtle and insidious implications. Using 'hey guys' at the top of a job vacancy might have the effect of subconsciously turning away women who might unknowingly infer that you are looking for men rather than women. It seems trivial, but we are dealing with the subconscious here, little things like this can have a greater impact than we know.

It's this exact awareness that led to the social media platform, Buffer, to remove the word 'hacker' from their job descriptions once they realized only 2% of their candidates were women. 'I think the original reason why we liked that word was because hackers are just people who get things to work well and fast.' Buffer CTO Sunil Sadasivan said to explain the choice of the word. 'A ‘hacker’ doesn’t necessarily need a computer science degree or a lot of experience or need to be excellent in mind games, puzzles etc.'

They soon realized that the word hacker has masculine connotations was likely the cause. As Sadasivan said, the fact is 'even if titles don't matter to [them], they still matter.'

5- Use your imagination and fix yourself.

No one knows the extent and peculiarities of your leanings better than you. Once you become aware of them, the onus is on you to figure out the best way to rectify the problem. So maybe your problem is you haven't interacted with people of a certain race. Find someone in your office and have an honest conversation with them. Minorities are usually very happy to illuminate others to the realities of their lives.

Research from the paper 'Imagined Intergroup Contact: Theory, Paradigm and Practice' argues that simply imagining a particular situation can have the same behavioral and phycological effects as actually experiencing a situation. This means the simple mental activity of imagining positive interactions with the victims of your biases can help reverse them.

Most of us want to live and work in a more inclusive world. Variety is the spice of life and the more diverse a workplace, the more ideas, and perspectives are shared, the better the business will do. The more we work towards bettering ourselves, the closer we get to that world.

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