Being Consciously Unbiased.

I have a love-hate relationship with subconscious bias training. It’s great that people are being made more aware of their biases and privilege, but… well. Most subconscious bias training is rubbish. Even good training won’t get to the people who most need it. And even after all that, even in the most well-intentioned and aware individuals, we will still ascribe rationality to biased actions and thoughts far more than we should.

In order to balance against subconscious bias, we not only need to reduce it, but actively counter it - we need to be consciously unbiased. And in many ways, it’s easier to be consciously unbiased than it is to avoid unconscious bias. Conscious unbiasing relies on things that humans are generally good at like spotting patterns and taking action, rather than things that humans are generally bad at, like self-reflection, impulse control.

As a 101 for people who are new to this or a refresher for people who have enough privilege to not be surrounded by it daily, for IWD2021 I’ve written about a few common bias patterns and how to counter them.


A quick FAQ before I get into this....

Q: None of this stuff is really real, or if it is, you’re totally over-hyping it.
A: I’m not going to debate the impact or severity or importance of this stuff… there’s enough content out there already. Google is your friend. Go look it up.

Q: Yeah but not all men.
A: Stop trying to make this about you. Time to listen instead.

Q: I don’t need to worry about being biased, I’m a woman.
A: Women on average are only 10% less biased than men. When women face hurdles and difficulties in their careers, it’s easy to internalise it and think it’s normal, or even worse, “right”, and apply it to others beneath and around them. Also, intersectionality - look it up.

Q: Yeah but I’m a lovely person really and so are all my friends/colleagues.
A: I’m sure it does. But it doesn’t make you infallible. This is what women experience day in, day out in all sorts of environments, not just hostile ones.

Q: None of these were actually questions, more statements really.
A: Yup.

I’m going to cover three common bias patterns here, but there are loads more.

Prove-it-again bias.

The Prove-It-Again bias is what happens when you don’t look like the kind of person who does what you do. Whether that’s a dad who is the primary parent for their kids, or a woman working in tech, you have to go further to prove yourself if you don’t fit the commonly held stereotype.

Facing the Prove-It-Again bias means that your successes are more likely to

  • Be forgotten
  • Be attributed to someone else
  • Be attributed to luck/fluke over competence

Meanwhile, your failures are more likely to…

  • Be remembered as more severe than they are
  • Be remembered as more recent than they are
  • Be attributed to incompetence over bad luck

For women in tech, the implications are:

  • They may become more risk-averse, because they know they will be more severely impacted by failure. It is easy for it to be less “safe to fail” if you’re a member of an under-represented or minority group (URM).
  • They get given more repetitive and less stretching opportunities, which stunts their growth and development. They get promoted more slowly, leading to fewer of that group in senior roles.
  • They may internalise the messages that they need to be “less ambitious”, or take their careers “one step at a time”, leading to slower progress

How to be consciously unbiased against the prove-it-again pattern.

It’s easy to notice the prove-it-again bias once you know what to listen out for. You might hear people say things like:

  • “She’s good, but I just don’t think she has enough experience for this role”
  • “She was lucky to be working with on that, he’s a great coach”
  • “It was a great team, she was bound to do well”
  • “I don’t think we should put her in a lead position, after <something which actually happened as a one-off 2 years ago>”
  • “We really need to see her prove that she can do this before we give her such a responsible role”
  • “She did a good job, but it wasn’t really a very challenging role”
  • “She really messed up when she <did something which wasn’t very bad>.”

When you hear that kind of talk, just challenge its accuracy. And when you notice someone falling to the prove-it-again bias pattern, you can take compensating actions:

  • Give them stretch assignments; push their abilities
  • Credit them with success in visible places
  • Don’t give failures undue weight; be fair and consistent when attributing success
  • Apply your awareness of this bias pattern to become more objective

The Likeability Penalty.

Here’s a dichotomy - women can be seen as nice but incompetent, or competent but a bit of a horrible person.

For the women who choose to appear competent, you might hear phrases like...

  • “She’s good but I’d sure as hell not want her on my team”
  • “I couldn’t handle her as my boss, she’s terrifying”
  • “She needs to be more approachable. She’s just so abrasive”

The alternative is…

  • “She will never do well on that project, she’s just too soft and we need someone who can power it through”
  • “We need someone who can impress the stakeholders. She needs more presence, more gravitas”
  • “She’s lovely but we need someone with more experience”

All too often these patterns are rooted in misogynistic tropes. They crumble quickly from the smallest amount of challenge. Try asking...

  • “Why do you think that?”,
  • “What experience makes you say that?”
  • “Would you say the same of ?” Or just outright challenge and disagree...
  • “I don’t see that”
  • “I want her on the team anyway”
  • “Other people disagree”.

Underpinning the likeability penalty is a set of “allowed” behaviours and appearances for women. These are deeply rooted in centuries-old control through enforcing submissive behaviours and objectification (treating women’s bodies as commodities with no agency).

When women fail to be submissive (especially to men) or fail to adhere to societal expectations of appearance, they are punished for it.

There is a severe race multiplier on the likeability penalty.. As a white woman, I've been able to get away with being much more abrasive than any of my black women colleagues.

Helpful and submissive behaviours

The expectation on women is that they should be helpful and submissive, unchallenging and accommodating. When women fail to adhere to these controlling standards, they almost inevitably face a backlash. But when they do, they fail to accumulate the kind of social credit that men would do given the same situation (think “oh I really owe so-and-so a favour after they helped to facilitate that tricky workshop” vs “I really did so-and-so a favour by letting them have the opportunity to facilitate that tricky workshop”).

That means women are more likely to be lumbered with essential work items that are ascribed low value - the office “housework” - and receive little or no recognition for it or the value they’ve delivered by doing this.

Look out for:

  • Male team members claiming to be too busy to do admin. Pay particular attention to things like organising team socials, arranging meetings, taking notes, clearing up kanban boards. (This is a true “not all men” situation; when men do volunteer, it’s always the same ones who help and always the same ones who shirk off).
  • “She should be scrum master again”... and then that job being mostly about printing out tickets and keeping the board up to date, rather than leading the team.
  • Women repeatedly volunteering for low-visibility/low-recognition work.
  • Women being described in emotional terms when they challenge others… “She challenges far too much and gets really het up about stuff, she needs to go with the flow more”

### Consciously unbiased against low-value work

Know that women don’t do the office housework because we like it or are good at it. We do it because we see the value for the team. As an ally, this is about walking the walk...

  • If you are always too busy doing something “more important” when the admin tasks are handed out, you’re doing it wrong.
  • If the same people are always picking up the admin tasks and office housework, then try to work out what you can do to ensure the burden is shared more evenly
  • If you’re a leader or in a position of power, make sure the “glue work” is recognised when it comes to promotion and pay-rise times, and don’t just reward heroics.

Choose to challenge.

There are many other well-trodden paths of bias and discrimination that women face, that I haven’t even started to cover here. Layering in intersectional discrimination patterns, and adjusting for circumstances, you’ll see these play out with many different subtleties and nuances. As always, try to pay attention to hidden power dynamics, listen to and believe the women you work with, put the effort in.

But you don’t need to be an expert to start paying attention to what’s going on around you and actively challenge common bias patterns.

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Urgh, this is probably a bad idea. Feeling bold right now though, so here we go...