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Unconscious Bias Is a Tricky Subject
Unconscious bias is tricky. Let’s face it, everyone is complicit in creating broken and unjust systems and everyone has to be better – including WorkTango. In the tech world where we reside, there’s bias language in programming. Think master-slave computing. It’s so universally ingrained in coding that to change it would be huge. Or is that bias thinking in and of itself? If you google the terminology, you’ll find all kinds of alternatives like: agency and operatives, captain and conscripts, master and minions, hive and drones, primary and replicas. So, that “huge change” might not be as huge as first imagined. It’s more a matter of making the decision to change, and sticking to it.
Sure, it can be debated whether master-slave terminology is offensive to Black developers. But what’s not, are the statistics in a recent blog by Fullstack Academy, a top-ranked immersive software engineering program based in NYC. Tech—and Silicon Valley in particular—remain overwhelmingly white. And according to research by The Center for Investigative Reporting, Black employees make up only 2.5 % (median) of Silicon Valley employees.
Digging deeper, diversity and inclusion numbers in the tech industry for women – never mind women of color, people of other ethnicities, and LGBTQ2+ people are abysmal too.
A June 2020 Business Insider investigation compared the diversity statistics of 17 major tech companies and what they’ve said publicly about ongoing anti-racism protests. (As a sidebar, 15 of those companies are led by white men. No women or black people hold the top seat.) Suffice it to say there’s disparity. As a sampler, the “Leadership Diversity” numbers of tech behemoths Microsoft, Google, and Amazon show an average breakdown of 64.2% White, 24.8% Asian, 5.4% Latinx, 3.6% Black and 0.5% Indigenous. Men comprise 75.5% of the workforce. Women make up the remaining 24.5% (Is it any wonder why some have said the structural organization of work has proved more inflexible than women’s ovaries?)
Unconscious bias is a major HR recruitment, promotion and retention hurdle
Far too many talented people are cast aside without us being aware of what we’re doing and why.
Creating a company culture that celebrates and respects people for their diverse backgrounds and experiences should be a top priority for all employers. The thing is we have racism and unconscious bias ingrained into our organizational cultures that we don’t even realize. We’re blind to it. And it most often starts in the workplace during recruitment.
Multiple studies show that job candidates with foreign-sounding names have a significant disadvantage. The BBC reported on conducting such a test in 2017. “Inside Out London” sent CVs from two candidates, “Adam” and “Mohamed”, who had identical skills and experience, in response to 100 job opportunities. Adam was offered 12 interviews, while Mohamed was offered four. Although the results were based on a small sample size, they tally with the findings of previous academic studies.”
In the interview process, there can be a lot of similarity bias. When we’re interviewing someone similar to us, we tend to be more favorable towards them. That’s why having a hiring committee is important, and acknowledging that a diverse group of decision-makers is important.
What the numbers tell us
A survey from job site Glassdoor, based on feedback from more than 1,100 workers in the U.S. found about 61% have seen or experienced discrimination in the workplace, whether it be racism, ageism, gender discrimination, or LGBTQ2+ discrimination. Consider these examples:
- Two weeks after telling her boss she’s transgender, Aimee Stephens was fired from her job as a funeral director.
- John Ryan, Practice Leader for Power, Renewable Energy & Green Technology for Transearch International worked with a firm that routinely surveyed employment issues. He recalls a Black banker’s story about being at a baseball game with colleagues when his beeper went off. His boss looked over and asked if a big drug deal was going down. He calmly remarked that his wife was on bed rest with a difficult pregnancy, and might be going into labor. Suffice it to say, it was uncomfortable.
- A Women in The Workplace 2018 Survey found women of color are not only significantly underrepresented, they’re far less likely to be promoted to manager, more likely to face everyday discrimination and less likely to receive support from their managers. To survive in the workplace Harvard Business Review reports a lot of women “code–switch” which involves adopting a vernacular and persona at work and switching to a more authentic self when around friends and family.
- A seasoned employee was about to make a presentation when a younger colleague, twice, made reference to the fact that the speaker’s notes were on 5 x 7 rather than 3 x 5 note cards, saying: “Guess that’s what you gotta do when you get old.” This individual thought she was being funny and wanted to make sure everyone heard the “joke.” The older woman said nothing, but it pushed her self-doubt buttons and led to a substandard presentation.
- On the other end of the ageism spectrum, Millennials and GenZers are regularly broad-brushed as loyalty-handicapped, self-involved, digital junkies looking for the next best job opportunity. Just do a quick Google search and see for yourself.
All of this leads to the matter of retention; According to a “Tech Leavers” study:
- Nearly eight in ten employees who left tech jobs reported experiencing some form of unfair behavior and 37% said they left their jobs because of it.
- Women experienced and observed far more unfairness than men.
- Nearly one-quarter of underrepresented men and women of color experienced stereotyping, twice the rate of white and Asian men and women.
- Nearly one-third of underrepresented women of color were passed over for promotion, more than any other group.
- LGBTQ2+ employees were the most likely to be bullied (20%) and experience public humiliation (24%) and 64% said it contributed to their decision to leave.
- Men from underrepresented groups, such as Black, Latinx and Native Americans, were most likely to leave due to unfairness (40%).
- All told, unfair, discriminatory behavior and treatment was the number one reason given for leaving, and was twice as likely to be cited than being recruited for a better opportunity.
Standing up to bias
A Deloitte survey on inclusion discovered that although the overwhelming majority of workers consider themselves allies in the workplace, among individuals who responded that they “feel dedicated to supporting individuals or groups who are different [from them] and stand ready to advance inclusion”, only slightly more than a quarter have spoken up at the moment when detecting bias. That silence is serious.
Most of us realize things are so bad we need solutions. But the problem is, if our organizations don’t realize the scale of the problem, they’re not going to accept the scale of the solution. The key thing, as HBO comic John Oliver passionately pleaded, is for the social outrage we’re seeing on streets around the world to be matched with action in our organizations, knowing full well that our own unconscious bias – or deliberate biases – are built to resist change. And that’s going to take sustained, significant effort to get the reforms required for anything to meaningfully change.
As Emmanuel Acho says in an episode of Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, if we truly want to evolve as individuals and organizations, “we need to see the beauty in color and the beauty in culture.” Each one of our employees “has uniqueness and differences and it’s okay to highlight and embrace those differences.”
Beware anyone who says they have no unconscious biases. This is a very concerning comment. A red flag. We all have conscious and unconscious biases. It’s just a sense of understanding how, as the term suggests, we’re conscious of those things or not.
We’re putting a lot of responsibility on our individual leaders, managers, and employees to have that level of self-awareness; that’s a lot to ask. So as an HR leader, think more about the system you have around these activities – from writing your job descriptions and where roles are being advertised – to what behaviors your leaders are taking. It’s a full end-to-end review. There are lots of ways you can track information through those different stages to understand where your hotspots are and what actions you can take to improve it.
A Case Study in Point
Earlier this month the Globe & Mail published a piece about Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that more Facebook employees would be allowed to work remotely permanently. His underlying message: That means if you live in a location where the cost of living is dramatically lower, or the cost of labor is lower, then salaries [will] tend to be somewhat lower in those places. In other words, if you live in lower-income, lower-value neighborhoods, expect a drop in your pay.
So, let’s look at Zuckerberg’s position through a black colored lens.
- 90 % of Black Americans live in metropolitan areas, however,
- A majority of Black Americans live in areas where real estate values are lower because of continued systemic racism
- Homes of similar quality in neighborhoods with similar amenities are worth 23 % less in majority-black neighborhoods, compared to those with very few or no black residents.
- 70 % live in neighborhoods that are over 20 % black
- 41 % live in majority-black neighborhoods
- An undercover investigation, for instance, found realtors hesitate to take black people to select high-end neighborhoods. In fact, agents treated people of color unequally 40 % of the time, compared with white people when they searched for homes on Long Island, one of the most racially segregated suburbs in the United States
Therefore, by virtue of the lower valued neighborhoods where a majority of Black Americans live, Facebook’s black employees could very well find themselves amongst those facing pay cuts – continuing the trend of inequity.
For a deeper dive into matters of diversity, equity and inclusion, and where Unconscious Bias factors into the equation, check out our guide to Employee Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Surveys here.