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Defeating unconscious bias in the workplace

by Renee Richards

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias is an attitude or stereotype that affects our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Unconscious bias is something that everyone deals with and unfortunately it is in our nature… no really, it is developed at an early age!

While it is hard to admit it, we all have had biased thoughts, be it unconsciously or implicitly. When biases influence decision making and actions unfairly is when these biases becomes a problem.

What are my personal experiences with Unconscious Bias in academia and industry?

From a young age, I always felt different for liking math and science; I was usually the only girl in robotics club or math competitions. My interest in the math and science persisted despite these observations/experiences and it felt like a no-brainer for me to pursue an education in engineering or sciences as a small engineering school. When I went off to pursue my undergraduate degree there was a glaring disparity between the number of men and women enrolled at the small engineering school.

At times it felt like there was an elephant in the room when there were so few women and I couldn’t help but wonder if there were some obstacles in front of me that my male counterparts did not even realize existed. It felt like the unspoken elephant in the room.

It wasn’t until I joined the geophysics department that I felt more comfortable. To my surprise, the students were about 50% male and 50% female in my class year. Though the department was small, it did not feel like there were those hidden pressures of having to prove myself as a female but those thoughts still existed in the back of my mind. Those thoughts lingered as I joined an industry that was predominately male.

As I entered the workforce through internships and as a young professional, I recognized the harsh reality that discrimination and unconscious bias exists. I am now considered mid-career and it is still something that I see happening and struggle with myself. A lot of companies have measures in place to prevent discrimination in the workplace but that doesn’t necessarily address those deeply rooted thoughts and behaviors; it is hard to tell if you are victim of someone else’s unconscious bias.

How can you overcome Unconscious Bias?

I first got involved with diversity and inclusion programs fairly early in my career not just because it was a good development opportunity but because I wanted to prevent discrimination and bias in the workplace.

Sometimes, calling someone out for making a biased decision against you may not be the best course of action. Unlike blatant discrimination, unconscious bias can be against more than just the “protected” groups. By definition, the individual that may have a bias doesn’t even know it; it is their unconscious thoughts that take over.

The way that I tried to reduce bias from happening against me or others in the workplace was to introduce training and bringing it up casually in discussion. I taught a one hour seminar on unconscious bias and tried to bring up issues that I was aware of in the workplace. I understand that not everyone has the resources or time to do that but there are many resources that can start the discussion. If you have the ability to bring training to your office, many programs offer charismatic instructors that can be that voice for you in the office.

More importantly, we need to look at ourselves and work on ways that we reduce our unconscious bias. Here are a series of tips created by SunShower Learning that I find useful and try to implement in my every day:

  • Watch your first thought: when you encounter someone different than yourself, take a moment to reflect on your gut instinct.

  • Use the power of logic: challenge yourself on why you had an initial reaction. It is often that we have these deep rooted biases that are developed at a young age and are influenced by our surroundings. When you use the power of logic, you challenge the source of that bias and decide if it is reliable.

  • Act as if the bias doesn’t exist: if you acknowledge that you may have an unconscious bias, the best way to defeat it is to not let it impact the way you treat people and make decisions.

These abstract ideas can be difficult to put into context, so let’s go over an example in the workplace. As mentioned before, everyone has biases, so I will confess one of mine. I was in a team meeting a few weeks ago and I was leading the effort on this extensive report that required input from geologists, geophysicists and engineers. I found that I asked the other women in the group more questions and engaged them more often. While I am trying to be inclusive, it is possible that I have a bias for women over men in the workplace. As possibly seen from an outside perspective, I would be exhibiting preferential treatment towards women. To overcome this, I consciously make an effort to engage and ask questions of all the team and not focus on those that I agree with or that I naturally gravitate towards. Even simple gestures like that can promote relationships and improve trust with your co-workers.

What are your biases?

Everyone has biases and Harvard developed an interesting study that can test that. The results will shock you. Take the following test to see uncover potential biases. You may find that by challenging yourself and reflecting on how you may have developed these biases, you can overcome them more easily.

Overcoming unconscious bias is part of your individual development to being more inclusive and it takes practice. Nobody is perfect and while you may not be able to challenge other people’s biases, you can do that for yourself. Here are some great resources to help you work on yourself… you’ll be glad you did it.

About Renee Richards:

Renee is a geophysicist, mentor and advocate for diversity and inclusion. She received her undergraduate degree in Geophysical Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines and her master’s degree in Geophysics from Texas A&M University. Renee has 7 years’ experience working in the oil and gas industry. She is currently a geophysicist for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

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