For years, I assumed I was relatively unbiased. I knew that I had to be taught what the different races were when I was quite young – everyone was darker than me, so I assumed it was a spectrum. Somehow, I reinterpreted that story to mean that I didn’t have inherent racial bias. I also didn’t think it was possible for me to be biased based on gender, since, well, I’m a woman.
Both of these are hilarious, now that I know a bit better.
Because, you know, I’m human. And humans tend to have more empathy for other humans like themselves. (There are more rigorous articles out there, but the Salon piece is a bit more readable.)
Over the years, I’ve found more and more biases.
I find that I have more empathy for white, female gen-Xers who have Jewish backgrounds. Shocking, I know, since I happen to be a white, female gen-Xer who has a Jewish family.
I’m biased towards upper-middle class people who went to good schools. And towards people who got married early. And who are child-free. And who love wine. And who, well, have something in common with me.
As I mentioned above, this is a common human trait. Recognizing just how many inherent biases I carry around with me is, frankly, embarrassing. So embarrassing that I’m squirming at my desk and trying to convince myself to publish this post anyhow. (Suck it up, Jenn!)
These biases affect how I interact every day.
My biases determine whether I meet someone’s eyes on the street. They determine how much slack I’m going to cut you when you do something annoying. They determine how much I initially like you when I meet you.
More disturbing, however, is that they affect how I lead. How I manage. How I hire and fire.
My biases could lead me to hire other white, female gen-Xers above others who might be more qualified. They could lead me to give underperformers way too many chances just because I empathize with them. They could lead me to make staffing cuts that first hit folks not like me.
When I realized this, it terrified me.
I mean, it’s illegal. To say nothing of unethical. And just really not cool.
Here I am, a woman in a largely man’s business world, and I could be acting out the same empathy bias that I fight against every day.
So I stepped back and realized that I, as a human being, am inherently biased. I will always tend to empathize with folks like me. This empathy means that I will make up stories about their motivations that are kinder than the stories I make up about others.
Then I did something about it.
I didn’t suddenly become unbiased. I wish I could! Instead, I started questioning myself when I suspected my biases were in play and changing how I behaved.
If I was interviewing someone with a similar background to mine, I’d check myself to make sure I wasn’t making the questions easier. If I thought they were easier, I’d ask a really tough question and then make myself shut up and not help the candidate through it.
If I was reviewing someone I didn’t really relate to, I’d triple-check every negative point to make sure that my lack of empathy wasn’t negatively impacting her career. I’d aggressively re-read peer feedback to try to get a more holistic view of how she was doing.
Some of the results were stunning.
I’d always read that all we really need to do in order to hire diversity is to simply decide to hire diversity and then let the rest happen. Shockingly, that’s exactly what happened to me. I recognized my bias and consciously decided to counteract it. The rest, well, just happened.
I’m still amazed that what I had to do to help compensate for my own bias happened in two relatively simple steps:
- Recognize my biases.
- Decide to compensate for them.
It’s not really easy, and it’s extraordinarily uncomfortable to come face-to-face with less pleasant parts of myself. But I have to say that recognizing – and starting to overcome – my own bias has been more than worth the discomfort.