Presented at SQL Saturday Oregon on October 24, 2015
We’re good people. As good people we don’t want to think we do things that have negative consequences for others. But sometimes our subconscious can fool us. What we intend isn’t always what happens. We think we’re making a totally rational decision based on our conscious values – but subtle, unconscious bias creeps in. Yes, even for good people. For 20+ years folks at Harvard have been using something called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to help us identify our biases.
Take this IAT on gender and career – the results may surprise you: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/user/agg/blindspot/tablet.htm
Watch Alan Alda take the test, it will give you a feel for how it works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RSVz6VEybk
Patterns and Categories
The human brain works with patterns and categories. It’s how we make it through the day. We are bombarded with 100s of thousands of data points every day – we can’t possibly think through each one every time. We unconsciously assign data points, including our perception of people, into buckets. Those buckets have values and characteristics assigned to them that may or may not reflect the individual person we put in that bucket.
This automatic assignment is called intuitive thinking or system 1 thinking. It’s easy and takes little effort. It serves us well and lets us take on many tasks every day. However, it also sometimes leads us down the path of thinking we’ve chosen the “best” person when we’re really hired someone who meets some set of assumptions.
Sometimes we use slow thinking, or system 2 thinking. It’s rarely a conscious decision, something just makes us take some extra time and we usually don’t even realize it. That’s when we stop to question what we’re doing – maybe we adjust which categories we put someone in or we adjust the category or the values and judgments associated with it. We’re good people but system 2 thinking is tiring and we just can’t do it all the time.
Why does diversity matter at work? Personally, when we’re on a diverse team we tend to have higher personal and job satisfaction. Diverse teams are interesting and we often learn more. People who don’t feel like they’re the “only one” of something (gender, sexual orientation, race, introvert/extravert, etc.) relax, contribute more, and are more productive. And study after study shows that more diverse teams lead to better products and a better bottom line.
Companies with women on their boards have higher ROIs, more diverse companies tend to perform above average, and let’s face it – we don’t have enough STEM graduates to fill needed jobs if we don’t encourage a more diverse group of people to enter the field.
But we’re good people and we don’t make these snap judgments. We are rational and we always know why we made a decision. Or do we?
Optical illusions fool us all the time. Even knowing those lines are all the same length, did you have to measure them just to be sure? The same thing happens in our interactions with people. What’s the first thing that comes to mind for single parent, introvert, doctor, CEO, or programmer? That first thing hints at your categories – the categories built up by a lifetime of media saturation filled with type-cast actors.
Back to the science of bias. Let’s think about resumes. In one study, resumes were handed out to academics who were asked to rate the job candidates for competency, hireability, mentoring, and suggested salary. Some resumes were for John and some for Jennifer. Professors of all genders rated Jennifer 25% less competent and less likely to be hired. They rated John worth about $4000 more. When asked why they gave ratings their justifications sounded rational but…. 4 industry publications was awesome for John and 4 was just not enough for Jennifer. They are good people but they (we!) are at the mercy of their subconscious and years of societal conditioning.
We’re good people so what do we do?
Take the IATs – there are many, take at least a couple and understand your unexpected biases. Talk about this with others so we all become comfortable talking about our subtle biases. Work to consciously update your mental categories – seek out images and reminders of people who are different and successful. Now that you know your own categories a bit better, be more mindful about switching to system 2 thinking. Reach out to one person and mentor them. Spend time with someone who makes you uncomfortable. Pay attention to the “firsts” (the first autistic character on Sesame Street, the first black President, the first whatever) and see if that helps you update your mental categories.
Increase the pipeline. Participate in groups that help kids learn to code. Recruit beyond your normal network, post jobs on diversity sites, and consider non-traditional backgrounds. Join diverse groups that don’t match your own diversity.
Be careful with words. Is someone bossy or exhibiting leadership? Is someone aggressive or a go-getter? Are they emotional or passionate. You may be surprised how you assign different words for the same behavior in unexpected ways.
When you post a job, only list something as “required” if it truly is. Women for example tend to only apply if they meet almost all the requirements, men tend to apply if they meet a few. Do you really require Java experience or do you need a good coder who is willing to learn new things? Don’t ask for a specific type of leader, look for someone who can lead in any of many productive ways. Explicitly state that you value a diverse team. And beware of subtle stereotypes – words like best, rock star, action-oriented define a particular picture but may not represent what you’re really looking for.
When reviewing resumes, have HR take off names, cities, and years. Before you pick up a resume decide on your priorities – does experience or willingness to learn matter more for example? Look for people who fill gaps rather than trying to replicate people you already have. And remember, system 2 thinking is tiring so do this when you’re alert and can take the time to think about what you’re doing.
For the interviews, have a diverse group participate. Simply looking at picture of or talking about diverse people before starting interviews increases the chance you hire with diversity in mind. Don’t confuse either confidence or “geek cred” with competence. Keep an open mind about different ways of approaching problems – it’s the result that matters.
Many flowers make a beautiful bouquet – @IsisAnchalee
Let’s Do It!
What is your personal pledge today?
Full slide deck is available at http://smallbitesofbigdata.com/archive/2015/10/26/moving-beyond-unconscious-bias-good-people-matter.aspx