How overcoming unconscious bias is the key to unlocking innovation
Kristina Pearkes (B. Eng (Mech), ’17) is co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at Orbityl, where she and co-founder Sean Kaiser are developing technology that allows people to control computers with just their thoughts. Orbityl was awarded the Outstanding Next36 Venture Award and was accepted into San Francisco’s prestigious Highway1 accelerator for hardware startups.
Written by: Kristina Pearkes
As one of the few female engineers in my Silicon Valley work community — the only one, in fact, in my entire office building — I get asked a lot whether I think being a woman has been an obstacle in my work. After all, amidst today’s headlines — think Google, Uber and Hollywood — the topic of gender equality in the workplace has never been as prominent.
The answer is No. And yes.
Right from the start, I’ve worked with terrific colleagues, funders and fellow scientists who embrace bold thinking and welcome contributions regardless of the gender of the contributor. Yet it would be inaccurate to say gender bias has not shaped my experiences along the way.
I’m not talking about overt sexism, though I’ve witnessed some of that, too. The bigger barrier is unconscious bias — the unintentional assumptions and misperceptions that unwittingly shape our receptiveness to other people, their ideas and their potential.
From my experiences as one of the few women in my mechanical engineering program in university and in the hardware startup environment in both Canada and the U.S., I’ve come to believe unconscious bias is one of the greatest obstacles to true equality and limitless innovation.
Breaking the invisible barrier to innovation
The term “unconscious bias” is in itself part of the problem; to say something is unconscious is to suggest that it can’t be helped, or that it can be dismissed. The sooner we drag these issues into the bright daylight, name them and address them, the sooner we stand a chance of seeing real change.
Biases are often unintentional; in fact, most of us are surprised to discover that they are as prevalent and deep-seated as they are. They generate unseen yet very real barriers before the conversation even starts. Time and time again I’ve observed peers having to work very hard to overcome the unconscious assumptions they encounter, whether they are about gender, age or ethnicity or some other factor of “otherness”. And I’ve experienced it myself, both as a woman and young entrepreneur.
The fact is, these unconscious biases stifle entrepreneurial potential, limit sources of innovation and blind us to the talent around us. They create barriers that make it harder for great ideas and collaborations to take flight. And they grind down the confidence and resolve of the very people who are thinking about tomorrow’s great innovation.
If You’re The Exception, Be Exceptional
Having to work hard to earn notice and respect does strengthen your character and make you a better observer. Growing up in Germany, I was the only girl in the local soccer league. I drove myself to work harder and be better, in the belief — shared by many of my female colleagues later in school and work — that as the one who is the exception, I need to be exceptional just to join the team. I made the team. And then I made captain.
This tenacity continues to pay off today. It influenced me to turn barriers into a source of inspiration. When people question my ability to do something, I love to prove them wrong, and it motivates me to work even harder.
As a Canadian now working in Silicon Valley, I notice a different set of cultural assumptions. Here, youth is not as much of a barrier; it may even be an asset. The tolerance for brave risk-taking and “moon shot” ideas is much higher than anything I‘ve seen before, and it’s tremendously inspiring.
And yet in other ways, it is still the same old story, the one where I’m the only woman engineer in the room. Many of us still face circumstances where we have to be exceptional, just because we’re the exception. In a culture that embraces everything new, it’s striking to me that some old-school traditions still hold sway.
Building the competence-confidence cycle
In spite of, or perhaps because of these enduring situations, it’s critical to build confidence — not just competence. Otherwise, one can fall into a never-ending spiral. A lack of confidence invites others to question one’s competence, which in turn can degrade one’s confidence even further. My experience in Canada’s Next36 program for young entrepreneurs was invaluable in helping me recognize and build my capacity to resist this cycle. NEXT Canada participants develop critically important skills and benefit from an extended network of experienced mentors, funders and peers. Most importantly, it helped me become more confident that I could take my place at the table with other venture leaders, and that Orbityl co-founder Sean Kaiser and I could set our company on the right path. Programs like Next36 are essential to foster both the capabilities and the confidence of young women with transformative ideas.
The other key to success is a commitment to building robust networks. These networks represent opportunities to discuss shared experiences, break down misconceptions and collaborate on new solutions. And they’ve invaluable for feeding that competence-confidence cycle throughout one’s career. It’s a lifelong journey; just as it takes work to keep learning and pushing the boundaries of our knowledge, it takes invested effort to build and sustain confidence in one’s ability and one’s vision.
Startups as agents of change
I truly believe that biggest issue with biases is that they are mostly “unconscious”, and that the key to eradicating them is awareness. It can be as simple as asking yourself, “If this was coming from someone else — someone who is a different age, gender or ethnicity — would I be making the same assumptions that I am right now?”. As long as we don’t ask these questions, we permit these biases to go unchecked, and miss out on great talent, great ideas, great innovations and great leaders.
More than ever I believe that early-stage ventures can lead the way. After all, a person who is prepared to take risks is a person who accepts the value of change. Let’s use the greatest aspects of the entrepreneurial spirit as an asset in identifying and overcoming the barriers that hold back our whole industry.
I can attest to the great things that can happen when ambitious young women are empowered to push the innovation envelope. Ambition has no gender, and it’s time we set it free.
NEXTalks features thoughts on entrepreneurship, innovation and giving from the NEXT Canada network. The goal of the NEXTalks series is to spark dialogue around important issues related to innovation and technology.