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Business, Diversity & Inclusion, Environment, STEM

Unconscious Bias: Who Other Than Me Would You Like To Talk To?

Diversity-iceberg-modelAn event from this past weekend took me back to a memorable conversation that occurred about 10 years ago. I was attending a three-day annual engineering and environmental summit that promotes speakers and topics of interests to a like-minded audience of representatives from businesses, industry, governments, and the public. The summit schedule included half-hour breaks during the morning and afternoon sessions to give attendees adequate time to network, attend to personal needs, check emails and voice messages, etc.

During one of the breaks, I was in ear shot of a conversation that an unknown attendee was having with one of my business colleagues. The stranger asked if my colleague knew me? He replied, “yes”. The conversation progressed in this manner:

Stranger: I was told that she is very knowledgeable on a number of these issues and does good work.

Colleague: Yes, I would agree with that.

Stranger: Who should I get in touch with if I am interesting in having her do some work for my company?

Colleague: Well, let’s see. She is the president and owner of her firm and I am unaware of any others in a leadership role at that level, so that would be her!

Stranger: Is there someone that she works with whom I can talk to?

Colleague: I’m not aware of any one else.

Stranger: Seriously, is there someone else that I can talk to about this?

Colleague: Seriously, you need to talk to her.

Stranger: Oh!

Although I can’t say what actions were taken by the inquisitive stranger, to my knowledge I did not receive a follow up call, email, or letter that related to his line of questioning.  While I recognize that business needs and interests can turn on a dime and change daily, the above conversation that took place years ago wreaks of unconscious bias. Regrettably, unconscious bias didn’t go out of style since then and it is very much alive in today’s work place and just about everywhere else.

I’ve discussed unconscious bias before in previous posts. As a reminder, unconscious biases can be defined as our implicit people preferences, formed by our socialization, our experiences, and by our exposure to others’ views about other groups of people. [Ref 1] The photo of the diversity iceberg model shows data that is often hidden from view when one attempts to size a person up without speaking to them.

More examples of unconscious biases are captured in Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s TED Talk: What does my head scarf mean to you? [Ref 2] She opens her monologue by asking:

“When someone who looks like me walks past you in the street, do you think they’re a mother?, a refugee? or a victim of oppression? Or do you think they’re a cardiologist? a barrister? or maybe your local politician?

Do you look me up and down, wondering how hot I must get or if my husband has forced me to wear this outfit? … I can walk down the street in the exact same outfit and what the world expects of me and the way I’m treated depends on the arrangement of this piece of cloth [she points to her hijab]. But this isn’t going to be another monologue about the hijab because Lord knows, Muslim women are so much more than the piece of cloth they choose, or not, to wrap their head in.

This is about looking beyond your biases. What if I walked past you and later on you’d found out that actually I was a race car engineer, and that I designed my own race car and I ran my university’s race team, because it’s true. What if I told you that I was actually trained as a boxer for five years, because that’s true, too.  Would it surprise you? Why?

Ladies and gentlemen, ultimately, that surprise and the behaviors associated with it are the product of something called unconscious bias, or implicit prejudice. And that results in the ridiculously detrimental lack of diversity in our workforce, particularly in areas of influence….”

Your points are well stated Yassmin. We all have biases! No one is exempt from them. If, however, these biases are challenging anyone of us to make progress in our personal and/or professional lives, one must identify them, acknowledge them, and mitigate them.

Now, back to the stranger’s inquiry: Given the tone of his conversation, I didn’t feel the urge to butt in and ask, “Who would you prefer to talk to? I’ll do my best to find him or her!”  I’ll also share that this was not the first time the preference to talk to someone other than myself about a potential business opportunity has come up, and I know it won’t be the last.

The primary interest asserted was the need to identify someone else to talk to over the need to identify a potential business partnership that could improve his company’s bottom line and position against competitors – and all in a casual business environment at no cost to his organization.

As Abdel-Magied so appropriately states: “Unconscious bias is a prevalent factor driving culture, causing us all to make assumptions based on our own upbringings and influences. Such implicit prejudice affects everything, and it’s time for us to be more thoughtful, smarter, and better.”

Who would you like to talk to? Even better, who should you be talking to?

Sources Cited:

  1. Is unconscious bias the next big diversity challenge?, The Team at Saffron Interactive, Spicy Learning Blog, January 9, 2013, http://www.trainingzone.co.uk/community/blogs/spicy-learning-blog/is-unconscious-bias-the-next-big-diversity-challenge
  2. Ted Talk: Yassmin Abdel-Magied: What does my headscarf mean to you?, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18zvlz5CxPE
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About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.

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