Understanding and handling bias in tech

Bias, explicit and implicit, is around us all day, every day. It is part of the human condition. But just because it is always there, always present and inherent in who we are, doesn't mean it should just be accepted and ignored. Understanding how to tackle the bias that we personally experience, bias towards others that we observe and our own biases, makes us stronger, better leaders, producing better outcomes and outputs, and building stronger teams.

Bias can broadly be split into explicit bias and implicit/unconscious bias. In both cases, bias is a necessary mechanism required for humans to operate and function every day. But that doesn’t excuse poor and detrimental behaviour.

Explicit bias is the most obvious type of bias. It is a deliberate decision to treat something differently. In the case of workplace culture, we usually talk about treating people differently, but actually bias applies to everything we do. The most obvious case of explicit everyday bias are the shopping biases we have. We all have preferences for particular brands or items: those are actually biases in action. Bias towards people can be far more sinister and include a deliberate decision to not be friends with or hire specific groups of people because of some characteristic. As soon as you decide to treat people differently you have a bias for one group and/or bias against another. Build in lots of different groupings, with different levels of behaviour towards each group, and the bias is still there but much more complex. 

Implicit (also known as unconscious) bias is a lot less obvious to ourselves and often harder to uncover. This is where our associations have trained our brains to make assumptions throughout life which impacts our judgement and decision making. Society is now talking frequently about the impact of implicit bias on promotions, pay packets, leadership positions and even who we elect to govern our countries. 

Implicit bias in action: people are more likely to trust and therefore elect to office politicians who are above average height!

Acknowledging that bias is in each of us is depressing… but that doesn’t mean that we can’t change the situation.

Explicit Bias

Tackling explicit bias is often seen as more straightforward than implicit bias. It’s right there, unashamed and in front of us. Unfortunately, by its very nature, it is actually a lot more challenging to tackle. You need to actively change someone’s mindset in order to remove/address explicit biases. The most obvious examples are easy to see historically, from not allowing women to work (initially not allowing women to work at all, and then only in certain industries), to the African slave trade – an explicit bias in action against a whole race.

The best way to tackle explicit bias in the workplace is to check first of all that it genuinely is explicit. Is the person involved genuinely aware of their behaviour and its consequences? If the answer is no, this is almost certainly an implicit bias, even though to you is obvious and therefore appears explicit. If it is a genuinely deliberate action by a person in full knowledge of their judgemental attitude/presumptions then your best action as a leader is to use policies and legal frameworks to tackle the issue. All too often changing explicit bias in someone is extremely difficult, but you can change the impact they have. If the bias is against you personally this is much harder and ideally you want one or more allies who are not subject to the bias to help you. But look for examples of where the bias is going against policies or even laws. The most common example in modern workplaces is hiring bias’ which frequently go against employment legislation and/or an organization’s HR policies. Use rules as your ammunition for addressing behaviour or if necessary even removing an individual from a position of decision making where their personal explicit biases are damaging. Finally, send them on a course – don’t expect to change explicit bias attitude by just gently educating in-house. 

Changing cultural attitudes to explicit bias is a lot more challenging, so if there aren’t policies or legislation to back you up on explicit bias you are really talking about a cultural revolution. But I encourage you to still stand by your principles if you believe something is wrong. It can be extremely difficult, but that is how we move towards a better society. Being a Rosa Parks can be extraordinarily difficult, but they are role models for a reason – they changed the world for the better.

Implicit Bias

Implicit bias, also commonly referred to as unconscious bias, is the bias most referred to and used to explain the gender pay gap and leadership gaps in modern society. Implicit bias by its very nature is insidious and difficult to isolate. And although it may be obvious that we all have it, admitting that you exhibit bias can be painful for an individual. 

How implicit bias manifests can vary greatly, from changing who we promote to how we behave with different people. When we see this in others, before jumping to a conclusion about someone truly exhibiting implicit bias, it is always worth validating it with a third party. Can you discuss your observations confidentially with someone else who would have observed the same situation and check if they interpret the issues the same way? Avoid using friends and partners who won’t have personally witnessed the behaviour – this can so easily result in an echo chamber for our interpretation of events. 

All too often though, implicit bias genuinely is there, because it is inherent in everyone. But how do you tackle implicit bias at work? Here are some top tips.

  1. If the bias is personally directed at you, or you are the one experiencing it, get an ally. It is extremely difficult to tackle bias that you are directly impacted by. You might be accused of overreacting. In general, it is easier for someone else to handle it, albeit equipped with all the information. 
  2. Remember that when you tackle what is detrimental behaviour, most people will get defensive. Be prepared for this, and maintain a level of calm. Allow the individual to be emotional and emote – after all, it hurts to be told we aren’t as good as we think we are!
  3. If at all possible don’t make it personal. This is easier said than done, but if you are dealing with negative behaviour at work (whether it is bias or something else), you will have a more positive reaction if you can make someone come to the conclusion that their behaviour needs improvement on their own. Talk about general situations and see if that encourages behavioural change. Of course, this all too frequently doesn’t work.
  4. If you are directly tackling someone on a specific situation, put it in context. Explain the consequences, and demonstrate that you understand the behaviours and subsequent consequences were probably unintended. Pause. Allow reflection. Then discuss next steps. 
  5. If you lead a team, regular awareness training on unconscious bias can be a great idea! From pointing out that all of us have implicit bias, to updating our knowledge of our own current biases can be a great way to keep this undesirable issue under control. Start with getting everyone to take the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT). And get people to discuss their results if they are willing to – it can be quite eye-opening for all. 
  6. Remind everyone that we are never ‘fixed’. There is increasing evidence that unconscious/implicit bias training can backfire because people come out thinking that they are ‘fixed’! The problem of course being that we are never going to get rid of our biases. All we can do is understand and adjust for them.
  7. Put in place processes to allow for adjustment. Look for practices that currently encourage/enable biases, such as making people-based decisions at the end of the day under time-constraints or hiring requirements that mean you are requiring people who have your type of educational background (association bias)

What to do if you are subject to bias at work

Sadly, as women, we see bias frequently in the traditionally male technology field. For example, there is all too often an expectation of traditionally male attributes in leadership, which are then selected for and a presumption of women being good at certain tasks (hello taking minutes!). 

So here are some tips. But please do be aware that as with everything we all do at work, sometimes things may backfire, so be prepared for a negative response before handling bias in your colleagues.

  1. Discuss with a confidant and/or a senior leader who is not the source of the bias. Talk through what you are experiencing and understand if they are observing the same thing. But remember, just because someone else doesn’t see it doesn’t mean it is not occurring – so follow your instincts.
  2. Watch out for micro-aggressions and gaslighting. If you find that your confidence is being constantly undermined or that no one agrees with your diagnosis of bias, be aware that there might be some gaslighting going on. Again, follow your instincts. In addition microaggressions can add up to undermine your abilities, your contributions and your confidence.
  3. Collect data. Literally document every time you are asked to do something, or others are given opportunities that you aren’t. Share this documentation with someone you trust first, again ideally someone in a senior position. Then if there is no other option share it with the individual it concerns, but please be aware that it might go down badly. 
  4. Don’t be tempted to work harder! It is very easy to fall into the trap of needing to prove ourselves, working twice as hard, delivering twice as many results than our colleagues. This actually undermines our performance, encourage burnout and does nothing to address the bias – it just reinforces to your biased colleague(s) that this is what you do. Learn to say no, in a positive constructive manner. Protect your boundaries and stop ‘just helping out’ one more time.
  5. Remind yourself of your value and worth. This is more necessary than we often admit, but if we are experiencing bias, aggression or just poor behaviour our confidence will job. So use your data to document how great you are, the contributions you have made, successes you’ve had and feel good about them.

Finally, if you’ve attempted to tackle this personally, escalated to management and even to HR, sometimes we do have to walk away from a company that is genuinely exhibiting poor behaviour. I used to say that we should work at fixing this from within, and that it is our duty as women to fight for change for other women. But this ignores our own mental health, our own needs and our personal situation. I don’t encourage walking away lightly, but if the situation is not changing for the better, sometimes the right thing to do is to vote with your feet and move to a better, more supportive employer. As with anything though, make sure you make such a decision from a place of calm and rationality and make sure you are fully aware of all the consequences before doing so.

Enjoyed today’s blog? Find out more about tackling biases in the free training over at the Leading Women in Tech Facebook group. 

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