In mid-March, Mashable ran a short story on a SXSW panel involving the executive chairman of Google, Eric Smith, Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson, and the United States’ Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith. The panel topic was “How Innovation Happens” with a focus on diversity. During the Q&A session, someone noted how the men repeatedly interrupted Smith, much more than she did them, and asked if they thought this was a sign of the unconscious bias they were discussing. This was notable because the question came from Judith Williams, the Global Diversity and Talent Programs manager at Google.
Ms. Williams leads workshops on unconscious bias at Google. After releasing a report on diversity in early 2014, Google decided that they were not where they should be when it comes to diversity. This led them to focus on unconscious biases. These are cognitive shortcuts that help us process information and our experiences over a lifetime build up to form them. Law professor and researcher Jerry Kang, author of Implicit Bias, A Primer for Courts, states “We naturally assign people into various social categories divided by salient and chronically accessible traits, such as age, gender, race, and role.” Whether you want them to or not, every experience you’ve had contributes to your biases, which can be positive or negative.
While Google has taken steps to address this issue (more than 26,000 Google employees have participated in the workshops), this is not the norm. Determining how to teach diversity, as well as unconscious biases, in the workplace can be a huge undertaking, but one that will benefit everyone. This year, Georgetown launched an online program for faculty and staff, which focuses creating a community that is free from discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct. This could be a first step in uncovering our unconscious biases.
As an LGBT woman in the tech field, Megan Smith has likely experienced a lot of unconscious bias throughout her career, but has not let that hinder her. Her pragmatic response to the panel question is an indication of that, “It’s something we all have and it’s something we have to really debug.” Our biases are something we can work to change in the workplace, but we have to be honest with ourselves and ready to deal with bias in a respectful and thoughtful manner. What is important for us, as Judith Williams states in a New York Times Opinion, is that “…employees are comfortable with — and held accountable for — calling out prejudice, both blatant and subtle.”
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