Over the past couple years, more tech giants have recognised the dramatic lack of diversity in their workforces as a problem.
Google (largely white and male from top to bottom) is trying to establish itself as a leader in this space.
A key initiative is having its roughly 60,000 employees across the world undergo unconscious bias training. Unconscious bias refers to the stereotypes, both negative and positive, that exist in our subconscious and affect our behaviour.
First implemented in 2013, the training lasts 60 to 90 minutes and is run by a coordinator who has undergone at least 12 hours of training.
Google gave us permission to share its presentation on unconscious bias, which has been given to more than half of its staff. For access to the slides and the company’s unbiasing guide, you can visit Google’s re:Work site.
The presentation begins with an explanation of why everyone is gathered in the first place: Becoming aware of biases can lead to changing behaviour, which ultimately can make Google more collaborative, inclusive, and competitive.
What we call unconscious biases are rooted in the recognition that the human brain evolved to help the species survive.
Without the brain's ability to subconsciously process thousands of pieces of information in an instant, our ancestors would have ended up as food.
The same ability now gets us through the day without having to slowly process every decision we make.
Our conscious mind, then, is processing only a minute fraction of what our unconscious mind is processing.
There are four things in the workplace that commonly trigger unconscious biases. Task: We associate certain jobs with a certain type of person. Numbers: When looking at a group, like job applicants, we're more likely to use biases to analyse people in the outlying demographics. Clarity: When information is lacking, our brains fill in the gaps with what we're expecting. Perceiver: A heightened emotional state can keep the conscious mind distracted.
In 1996, researchers ran a computer simulation of a hierarchy that began as evenly split among men and women eligible for promotion across eight levels, with a rate of 15% attrition. The lowest level has 500 employees and the top only 10. The men and women were assigned a random performance score, but with men on a scale of 1-101 compared to the scale of 1-100 for women.
After 20 simulations, it was clear that the 1% edge given to men resulted in increasingly fewer women at higher levels in the company.
A more diverse workplace isn't just something that feels right. Years of research has shown that more diverse workplaces are more innovative and thus perform better than those that aren't.
There may be plenty of research on how unconscious bias works, but there isn't much on finding ways to counteract it for the benefit of a company. Google has developed a four-pronged approach.
It's necessary to set concrete criteria for certain jobs and team-wide goals if they're going to be achieved.
A 2004 study shows the importance of setting criteria. Researchers randomly assigned traditionally European and African American names to identical résumés and discovered that it took 50% more applications from the latter group to get a call back.
In another set of studies, researchers found that when criteria were set beforehand and applications were gender-blind, discrimination dissipated.
Structured job interviews can give all job candidates a fair shot, and at Google they have been found to be more efficient and effective.
Turning specifically to the tech world, researchers found that in three entrepreneurial pitch competitions across the US, attractive men received notably more funding than both their less attractive counterparts and all women.
In another study, 268 male managers across a variety of industries and departments were asked to use a list of 92 attributes to describe one of 7 categories: men and women in general, men and women as managers, and men and women as successful managers. The result was that 71% of the traits associated with successful managers were associated with men in general.
Collecting data is necessary to measuring progress, and can help with spotting patterns. And when you have data about individuals, you're less likely to make assumptions.
Unconscious bias is often manifested in non-malicious ways. For example, when YouTube launched its first app for Apple's iOS, 5-10% of videos appeared upside-down because the engineers had unconsciously optimised the app for right-handed users.
Google has long celebrated the birthdays of famous leaders and innovators on its homepage with signature Doodles, and in 2014 a blogger pointed out that 77% of the year's previous ones were for men. The Doodle team, split in gender, was shocked by the breakdown and then began tracking the diversity of their commemorations.
Researchers found that working on financial portfolios was gender-stereotyped as a male task. In a 2005 study, they presented subjects with information about a man and a woman working on such a task, the outcome of which was very successful. Half the subjects were given a report on what each member contributed and the other half were given a report on what they contributed as a pair.
The subjects who received reports on separate contributions rated both the man and woman equally, on average.
In the absence of information, the mind has a tendency to use unconscious bias to fill in the empty space.
The term 'microaggressions' is used to denote subtle comments or body language that can have a significant impact, whether intended or not.
Consider how you present yourself to others at your company. And how does your company present itself, from images on its website to the people it chooses to speak at events?
A researcher at Rice University in Texas gave 16 students one of two hats, without showing them which one was placed on their head, and sent them to a mall to verbally apply for jobs. The students were told to surreptitiously record the interaction and observe how it went.
The researcher found that interactions for those wearing 'Texan & Proud' as opposed to 'Gay & Proud' hats were longer and notably friendlier. One doesn't necessarily have to carry hostility toward someone from a demographic different from theirs to treat them in an aloof manner.
The network of people you're connected with is critical to your personal and career success. When associating solely with similar individuals, you limit the information you have access to, as well as who has access to you.
A Stanford study took a group of undeclared undergraduate students to rooms decorated either in a traditionally male, geeky way (think video games and 'Star Trek') or in a gender-neutral way (nature posters) and gave them questionnaires about different majors. The female students were much more likely to give a positive consideration of tech majors when not in the nerdy, masculine room. That doesn't mean you need to bar your employees from expressing themselves, but consider the inclusiveness of the environment you're creating.
Carefully consider issues like hires and promotions, rather than making a decision because it 'feels right.' Make note of why you make these decisions, and seek guidance from others as necessary.
Remove the stigma of unconscious bias. Diversity is meaningless if people are afraid to talk about it.
Call out examples of unconscious bias that you perceive. Also acknowledge that you may be mistaken. What matters is that a culture of collaboration and transparency is established.
You can't change everything all at once. Begin with one of the four approaches, and adapt it to your work life.
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