Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Unintended Consequences

When you have thought of someone click here — be honest was this the person you thought of? If it wasn’t what gender was the person you thought of? I would be willing to gamble that the majority of people reading this article thought of a man.

To prove my theory if you have got this far take a moment and vote here to tell everyone who you thought of — please be honest so as not to invalidate the vote.

Assuming i’m right — your reaction to this question is not unexpected — take a look at this article which explores gender bias — it explains why we are culturally wired to make such an assumption — but to be clear, it’s not as if you didn’t have other options. I mean literally hundreds of options.

Did you intend to think of a man? Or was this an unintended consequence of our societies DNA?

Rob Norton who is the former economics editor at Fortune magazine said that:

the actions of people, and especially of governments, always have effects that are unanticipated or “unintended.”

We see this in everyday life — I think one of the greatest examples of unintended consequences in recent times on a monumental scale is Brexit. It doesn’t matter whether you voted to leave or to remain during the 2016 referendum, I doubt you anticipated that the result of that vote would lead to more than 3 years of arguing and fighting over if, how and when we would leave the European Union.

In January this year Bloomberg Economics published research which suggested that by the end of 2020 Brexit will have cost the UK Economy $200 billion. Now we can argue the accuracy of the research but I think we would all agree that the cost of Brexit is significantly more than anyone ever realised it would be — another example of an unintended consequence.

Of course not all Unintended Consequences are quite so significant.

I think we can all agree that unintended consequences are a part of every-day life but have you ever had an experience where there has been an unintended consequence that you haven’t seen immediately — or maybe there has been a consequence to something you have done which you have never seen.

I write this article as an openly gay man; I probably don’t meet the stereotype of what people would typically think of as someone who is gay but I certainly don’t hide my sexuality. I have totally lost count of the number of times I have heard as part of every-day conversation people describe things as “GAY” — and usually its linked to something negative.

“The car won’t start — well that’s GAY”,

“you’re not coming out tonight — “GAY”.

Now it’s fair to say that when I hear people describing things that have gone wrong as GAY, the perpetrator in the vast majority of cases does not intend to cause offence and as a result for many years whenever I heard such comments I didn’t say anything about it — the unintended consequence of my lack of action is that the offender was blissfully unaware that their actions had resulted in any negative consequence.

You might consider this is an isolated example — but there are many others. When was the last time you heard someone walk into the office and greet everyone with a jovial “Morning Guys”. Apart from the obvious fact that close to 50% of the your workforce is likely to be female — even if you are in a room full of Guys spare a thought for the Guy in the room who is questioning his gender identity — the guy who desperately wants to be a girl or maybe even the guy who hasn’t yet defined what they are.

This is, in my view the most damaging unintended consequence — a consequence that has occurred without the decision maker being aware that it has even happened but the impact of Morning Guys, or That’s Gay can be far reaching and can have devastating consequences on people’s lives.

I grew up in world where being Gay always had negative connotations associated with it — as a result I questioned my sexuality for years and tried to convince myself that I wasn’t — as a society in 2020 we are better than this — as a collective we need to make a decision to go looking for the unintended consequences and do what we can to get better.

When you hear someone refer to something as GAY; ask them why its not “Straight” — you’ll certainly get some interesting looks but the subsequent conversation will help attitudes to change.

When you hear someone say “Hi Guys” ask them if they are going to say good morning to the girls and for good measure start using your pronouns; mine are he / his and him — I have them in my e-mail signature — I do this because it normalises the idea of pronouns and hopefully makes it that little bit easier for a non-binary person to share their own.

As a leader in an Engineering organisation I believe it is critical to evaluate the unintended consequences that my decisions have. Have you ever said something that might have unintentionally caused offence? Or have you looked the other way when a colleague has unintentionally made a statement that might indicate a gender bias?

How you would react differently if the same situation arose again?

Have you had any experiences which have resulted in unintended consequences? If you have please reach out to me on Twitter and tell your story — you never know what unintended consequences you might help others to avoid.

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Steve Westgarth

Steve Westgarth

Steve 🏳️‍🌈 is the Global Head of Engineering at GSK Consumer Healthcare where he heads up the Software Engineering function.