What does unconscious bias look like?

In a recent project meeting we were talking about a technical decision the team had made when implementing a particular feature on iOS. There were four of us in the room: me, an iOS engineer and a product manager (all men) and a female technical project manager. I took a few minutes to explain to the PM and TPM a couple of the fundamentals of iOS development, which helped to explain why we’d taken the direction we had.

After the meeting the TPM asked if she could have a word in private.

“When you explained the technical stuff, was that for my benefit, or the benefit of me and the PM?” she asked.

“It was for both of you,” I replied.

“OK, so is there any reason why you only looked at me while you explained it all?”

My gut instinct was to protest; I’m sure I would have looked at both of them in turn as I explained. But I took a moment to think back on the meeting, and she was absolutely right. When I explained the technical stuff, I addressed the explanation to her alone.

About a year ago I took the Managing Unconscious Bias training that Facebook offers. It was fascinating, and it highlighted a number of unconscious biases that I have, including: I have a bias for expecting men to be better at technical subjects and women to be better at arts subjects. (With a civil engineer for a father and an English teacher for a mother, it doesn’t take Freud to figure out where this one came from.)

I remember coming out of that training session feeling as though I’d really learned something useful about myself, but also feeling like I was now automatically a better person because of it. I’d identified and talked openly about my biases! Problem solved!

Yet here I was, a year later, having stumbled straight into the trap my biases had laid.

I thanked the TPM for asking me the question. It took courage to raise the issue, and I wanted first and foremost to acknowledge and validate it. She was right, and it mattered. It mattered not just because I had failed to manage my bias, but because my behaviour could actually enforce that same bias in others; a roomful of men just saw me explaining the complicated stuff to the woman in the room.

I also asked her to please continue to keep me on my toes, and to continue highlighting to me any time she saw my biases in action.

Most importantly, I developed a new tactic. I can’t conquer my biases, and I shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist, but I now have a concrete example of how they manifest themselves and I can compensate for that. In meetings, I need to divide my attention and focus equally around the room; especially if I’m explaining technical issues in front of a mixed-gender audience.

The bit where I go meta

Having reflected on this for a few weeks, I’d like to think there are some simple rules that I could follow in future.

  1. Always be open to feedback, especially feedback that pertains to known biases. Not just that; I need to be explicit about the fact that I welcome such feedback, e.g. by writing a blog post about it. (Told you it would get meta.)
  2. Don’t beat myself up about this. These are unconscious biases. I screwed up, but I didn’t screw up with malicious intent. Being willing to have the conversation lessens the likelihood of a similar screw up down the road.
  3. Say thank you. It takes courage to give feedback like this, especially feedback that swims upstream against a prevailing power dynamic (e.g. a woman giving feedback to a man; an intern giving feedback to an engineer). The TPM, in finding that courage, has gifted me a valuable, clear, actionable piece of feedback.
  4. Think about strategies to help me counter my biases. For example, in this case I’ve started making a conscious effort to address everyone in the room equally. It’s not easy, but now I have that tactic in my mind I exercise it every opportunity I get.
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