Unpacking Your Unconscious Bias to Advance Your Career

This immensely useful workshop took place on Day 3 of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.  Camilla Heinzmann and Kelly Watson of Orange Grove Consulting were our energetic, engaging and impactful presenters.  Camilla started by emphatically stating, “We want you to take things away you can immediately use!”

She discussed our unconscious bias and how it provides an instantaneous way for making decisions.  Unfortunately for women, most of these decisions are detrimental to our career.  She illustrated this with a riddle, cautioning us not to share the answer if we already knew it.  “Let the rest of the group have a chance to think it through!

A man and his son are in a car accident.  The man is pronounced dead on the scene and the son is rushed to the hospital.  The surgeon takes one look at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this child!  This is my son!”  How is this possible?

*answer at end of post

The brain ingests an astounding 11 million pieces of information per day.  It processes about 40 million.  This is due to the filtering process that unconscious bias creates.  Filtering is necessary for our survival because there is simply too much stimuli in the world.

Camilla shared an experiment.  A panel was presented with the bios of 2 candidates.  The credentials and experience were identical.  One candidate was male and the other was female.  The gender-diverse panel unanimously preferred the male candidate because he was “likeable” and “confident”, whereas the female candidate was “unlikeable”, even “cocky”.

When we recognize our unconscious bias, we are capable of doing something about it.

The stereotype threat usually occurs when we are multi-tasking.  We have stuff going on in our head as well as in front of us.  A racing mind can lead to increased blood pressure, and short-term memory loss.  Brain scans reveal that women’s brains are active in different regions than male brains.  This heightens performance anxiety and leads to rumination and over-effort.

This is often completely unconscious.  Claude Steele and Howard Ross conducted a study where men and women were given a test.  When women encountered a question they couldn’t answer, they became distracted by the mental chatter in their brains.  “A question I can’t do!  Ack!“.  This unhelpfully activated other memories of when they had difficulty on tests.  Camilla also recommended the book The Orange Line (presenter Kelly Watson is one of the authors).  This book outlines how women can effectively navigate work and home.

We can change what we think the rules of engagement are.  When female professional progress is stalled, there are 3 key factors:

  1. Career Ambivalence
  2. Role Disconnect
  3. Unconscious Bias

Women have an unconscious belief that their work and home life are in continual conflict.  They see it as a cold either-or dichotomy:  The Career Ideal vs. the Woman Ideal This creates a fundamental disconnect.  What do we believe constitutes the Ideal Woman?

  1. She does it all
  2. She looks good
  3. She’s nice

Men have a somewhat different view of the Ideal Woman, as I learned in the short story The Ideal by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  You can find it in the collection At The Altar.

After a group exercise, Camilla humorously declared, “I can tell by the talking that you’re ready for the next part.”  Kelly explained that women are not actually bad at negotiating; we just don’t want to when it’s for us.  We will gladly (and effectively!) negotiate for other people.

Kelly shared a personal anecdote where she became the youngest VP at her company at 35.  She was instantly demanding perfect performance from herself, comparing herself to the 55-year-old VP who had just retired.  Her manager asked her why she was being so hard on herself.  When she explained that she wanted to be like the VP who had just left, her manager said, “Yeah, but give yourself 20 years, girl!

Kelly explained how women often obssess and agonize over emails they have sent.  “I’d like to retract that email.  It had a typo in it.”  Kelly asked us if this was a good use of our time.  The answer was a resounding no!

In the book Women Don’t Ask, it is estimated that women leave an astounding $1 million on the table, due to a failure to negotiate.

Camilla said, “Let’s get down to the why.  What’s at the core?”

Kelly discussed various anecdotes, all of which resonated strongly with the audience.  These are all real-life quotes from bona fide women whom Kelly has personally counseled:

  • A woman said that when her child arrived at daycare without a sweater, the daycare staff phoned her at work, even though it was her husband who did the drop-off
  • He’s a man and he’s a provider…”
  • Somehow, we have a gene for cleaning the house!
  • “The guys are awesome at feigning incompetence to get out of work!” (tremendous laughter from the audience at Kelly’s spot-on delivery of this quote)
  • One woman spent hours each night helping her teenager with his homework:
    • as a result, she was exhausted at work the next day
    • the boy’s father felt no such compulsion to help with homework
    • despite the fact that he was, by profession, a high school teacher!
  • One woman would not place a car seat in her husband’s car because “he drives too fast

Kelly related a personal anecdote that was actually extremely upsetting.  She and her husband once worked at the same company.  She was the senior manager.  They were both promoted and given the same salary.  When Kelly questioned this decision, she was told, “It’s a package deal.”  The audience gasped in disbelief and dismay.  Kelly persisted, “But I’m the senior employee.”  She was told, “Now you’re just being selfish.”  Just hearing this anecdote felt both unpleasant and uncomfortable.

Kelly explained, “We (women) are supposed to be selfless.  In other words, find your passion!  And do it for free!”  This is humorously illustrated in the Pajama Diaries comic strip by Terri Libenson.

While these anecdotes were humorous, they also felt depressing and discouraging.  Camilla and Kelly encouraged us by stating, “You get to choose whether or not these are true.”

In Part 2, we’ll discuss a model for change.

*riddle solution:  The surgeon is the boy’s mother.

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Managing Your Moods at Work

This session was presented by Beth Budwig, Mamta Suri and Harika Adivikolanu of Workday.  Harika is a new graduate.  The number of young speakers at GHC 17 is incredible!

80% of people feel stressed at work.  25% of people feel angry.  10% of people are afraid of experiencing violence at a co-worker’s hands.  Audible gasps resonated from the audience as these statistics were revealed.

The goal is to use more of our rational brain and recognize that:

  • Other people are not under our control!
  • We can only control our self and our responses

Beth was certain that the way she interacted with her boss and her boss’s boss “almost certainly cost her my job“.  The audience murmured in sympathy and admiration for her candor.  Beth saw a doctor to handle her job loss, the stress she felt over it and her interpersonal skills.  Beth amused us by showing us a slide of an orange cat in a white lab coat with the nametag Dr. Morris.  She assured us that her real doctor did not look like this!

The doctor prescribed Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which is based on Cognitive Mindfulness.  The word dialectical refers to holding 2 opposite truths in mind, such as:

  • I’m fine the way I am
  • I am ready and willing to change

It is essentially about emotional regulation.  Beth shared her website:  Tools for Managing Your Moods.  She joked that her JavaScript skills are not that great and she doesn’t look at the back-end so therefore, “Your data is perfectly safe.  No one will know your answers except you and your cache“.  When the audience responded with laughter, she said, “Wow, I didn’t expect that to get a laugh.  But given the audience …”  There are certain in-jokes at GHC 17 and Nora Denzel makes most of them!

Beth described a lunch hour walk with a colleague.  The colleague spent most of the walk complaining about what was preventing her from being effective at work.  Beth reframed this by asking her colleague, “Who do you admire?”  The colleague mentioned various staff members.  Beth then surprised her colleague by asking, “In what areas could they improve?”  Beth’s colleague was surprised to discover that there are areas in which we can all improve!  In other words, we’re all human.


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Retaining High Tech Women Once They’re in the Door – Part 3

Continued from Part 2.

Karen emphasizes the importance of “Role Models – people I know who inspire me.”  20 years ago, Karen was considered a “mystic” and a “heretic” for speaking with customers to define the user experience.  Today, this practice is the norm.  Karen identified Supreme Court Justice Ruth Brader Ginsburg (RBG) as one of her role models.  Karen discussed role models in general:  they typically have a “zillion” children, are VP of their company and travel incessantly.  Karen has news for us:  hearing about these majestic role models doesn’t help women feel better!  Amen to that!  I remember the heroine of Allison Pearson’s novel “I Don’t Know How She Does It:  Life of Working Mother Kate Reddy” muse on this concept after reading an article about a similar “role model”.  “Name:  Elizabeth Quick.  Sister to Hannah Haste and Isabel Imperative, presumably.  Don’t these women realize how their accomplishments can be used as a stick to beat other women?” Kate wondered (speaking metaphorically, of course!).

Karen reviewed the advice generally given to women aspiring to senior leadership positions:

  • “Here’s a mentor” (Well, what if they don’t click?)
  • “Go network” (How?)

Women need local role models,” Karen stated.  “Have you been in your work over a year?” I have been in the workplace for 12 years now.  “Then you are a local role model.  Every decision you make, how you manager your home life … you are a walking, living, breathing role model for everyone a little less experienced.

This statement certainly gave us pause for thought.  Although I’m an active mentore in the American Women in Math Association, I had not thought of myself as a role model.  After this, when I hear the media bemoaning the lack of female role models in technology, I will think, “I am one and so are the other 14,999 GHC 2016 attendees!”

Karen showed us a picture of a baby carriage.  The slide read, “Nonjudgmental flexibility is the whole story for business“.  “This is really the easiest problem to solve,” Karen said.  She explained that parenting is forever.  “I still call my mom and my kids still call me.”  SHe also explained that juggling kids and work is not a distinguishing characteristic of our indecustry and re-iterated the earlier statement that women may say they left for their kids but the survey framework has uncovered entirely different underlying reasons.

“Self-confidence is a dependent variable,” Karen stated.  80% of survey resondents agreed with the statment, “Criticism is a necessary part of my job”.  50% agreed with the statement, ”


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Minimalism at work

Smartly attired in a black sequined blouse and plain skirt, speaker Nandini Bhatt opened her lecture by asking how many people in the audience were attending Grace Hopper for the first time.  Several attendees raised their hands.  “I was you last year,” Nandini said with a smile.  I was impressed that even though this was only her second time at Grace Hopper, she was a speaker!

Nandini shared the following inspirational quote:

On the last day of your life, the person you became will meet the person you could have become.  Anonymous

How’s that for pressure?  Time’s a-wasting so we’d better get started!  Nandini explained that minimalism has its earliest origins in art and music.  The simplest, fewest elements create maximum effect.  She also reviewed the Pareto principle:  80% of the results come from 20% of the cost (paraphrased).

Nandini is a mother of two young boys.  With her second son, she experienced an onset of post-partum depression.  She needed to do something to regain mental health and general happiness.  Her friend suggested a book about minimalism.  Nandini discovered research that stated

  • Mothers’ stress hormones spiked during the time they spent dealing with belongings and stuff

Nandini showed us a picture of her living room and explained that when she eliminated the non-essentials, she found herself feeling freer, calmer and happier.  This reminded me of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  Kondo recommends asking the following question of each item, “Does it spark joy?”  If not, discard it.  Of course, this also reminds me of the TV series Gilmore Girls:  A Year In the Life.  Emily Gilmore, the grandmother, has recently buried her husband of several decades.  One day, her adult daughter finds her disposing of everything in her massive home.  She demands to know why her mother is giving her evening gowns to the maid.  Emily says, “They didn’t bring me joy.”  Eventually, Lorelai gently explains to her mother, “Mom, nothing is going to bring you joy right now.  You just lost your husband.”  Decluttering has its limits in the face of extreme emotional trauma.

Back to regular life.  Nandini elaborated that she used to buy her sons several toys in order to make up for the guilt she felt over “not being there”.  Her focus is now on creating memories and experiences for her children.  I found this very touching.

Nandini explained that mindfulness calms the amygdala.  With practice, you can have a less reactive amygdala.  Nandini outlined a 3-step approach:

  1. Find Your Why
  2. Focus on 3 Things That Bring You Joy (hello Ms. Kondo!)
  3. Get Rid of Stress-Inducers at Work

Nandini quoted Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich.  “When your desires are strong enough, you will appear to possess superhuman powers to achieve them.”  She encouraged us to focus on our purpose in life.  What do we really want out of our time on this planet?

For step 2, Nandini outlined a 3 step approach:

  1. Focus on becoming the best version of you.  90 days; 90 minutes; 1 important task nothing else.  For the next 90 days, spend 90 minutes doing 1 important task and nothing else.  Nandini also recommended cultivating a gratitude mindset.  Ask yourself, “What am I thankful for?”  The answer could be something as seemingly minor as “My son hugged me today.”
  2. Focus on making your job interesting.  It is easy to fixate on why your job is dull, boring and meaningless.  Even the most interesting jobs can seem this way sometimes.  To infuse new energy, celebrate even the tiniest wins.  Also, remind yourself of why you accepted this role in the first place.
  3. Focus on creating a work family.  There has been a lot of humor tossed about regarding a person’s “work wife” or “work husband”.  This is essentially the individual’s go-to person:  a shoulder to cry on, a sounding board and someone with whom to share successes.  Going beyond the spousal humor, create a work family of individuals who resonate with you.  Go out for lunch together; have team building events; share photos.  Nandini took this opportunity to state that one of her priorities is having dinner with her family so she does not do evening team events or networking.  She is happy to cultivate professional connections over breakfast and lunch.  This is a theme that I heard throughout the conference.  Diane Boettcher also emphasized the importance of dinner with family and the decision to network at breakfast and lunch.

The next step is to identify 3 things of which to let go.  These are items that add:

  • clutter
  • stress
  • no value!

1) Let go of becoming someone else

  • Be true to yourself
  • Think of yourself as a market niche
  • You cannot please the entire market so don’t change yourself!

2) Let go of saying “yes” all the time

  • Be strategic about saying “yes”
  • Say “yes” to things that meet your career goals

3) Let go of “office politics”

  • Cease worrying about how others perceive you
  • Say “no” to gossip!
  • Focus on doing your best work

The goal is not to change who you are but to become more of your best self.

Recap:  Nandini’s hope for the audience is that they will take one step today.  “You can make a change but will it be one day or will today be Day One?”  Take one small step today.  Identify your why, identify one thing that brings you joy and identify one thing you can let go of.

Nandini’s talk was extremely well-received and the audience gave her a prolonged and enthusiastic round of applause.  Very well done for a first-time GHC speaker!


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Laurel asked, “Who here is a good girl and a perfectionist?”  She discussed the social conditioning that leads girls to believe they can’t be angry or say how they feel.  Perfectionism comes from a fixed mindset, vs. a growth mindset.  A fixed mindset requires:

  • achievement at all costs
  • failure is not allowed

This leads to over-cautious behavior.  Perfectionists tend to second-guess themselves.  For women in particular, this does not exude confidence.

Apology rules

  • Don’t apologize when it’s not your fault.
  • People would rather receive a compliment than an apology.

An audience member announced, “I am no longer a good girl at work.”  Another audience discussed her emotional and angry 13-year-old daughter.  One of the challenges she faces in parenting her child is reconciling the 21st century era of parenting to her perfectionistic mother.  “Seniors’ threshold of insults is much lower,” she explained.  “How do you break this age gap?’

Laurel said that when she was a teenager, she looked for direction.  Josie, on the other hand, said, “Don’t tell me what to do!”  Laurel provided the following suggestion:

Mum, I love you for who you are and I love you for who you’re not.  I have spent my lifetime worrying about what you think and it hasn’t been helpful.  I don’t want to pass that on to my children.  Please honor who I am as a mother and please be a role model to my children.  I have the right to raise them according to my internal values.

An audience member, Nicole, posed a candid query.  She and her brother just buried their mother.  While she loved her mother, she also found her a very strict perfectionist.  Minor infractions, such as spilt milk or food, resulted in severe consequences.  Nicole spent most of her childhood constantly apologizing.  It is so ingrained now that her colleagues find it strange when she apologizes for similar mishaps.  “Why are you apologizing all the time?  Everybody spills stuff!” they say.  Nicole asked the presenters, “How do you overcome the impact and influence of these early childhood experiences so that you can be more effective at work?”  The presenters thanked her for her query and agreed to come back to this question.

Josie and Laurel asked parents to “have a think” about the message you’re sending your son or daughte rwhen you over-apologize:

  • I’m invisible
  • I don’t count
  • Don’t worry about me

They also discussed controlling relationships, such as the one Nicole described.  One of the twins was in a controlling romantic relationship.  She had always considered herself a strong woman.  She knows now that these entrapments can happen to anybody.  “It eats away at you,” she said.  To the audience’s dismay, she explained that at one point, she found herself apologizing for the way she hung up the bath net.  Thankfully, she is well out of that relationship now.

Josie and Laurel discussed “little” shifts, such as eliminating the word ‘just’ from your emails.  They also discussed “big calls”.  Be prepared for push-back and be prepared to be called “abrasive” and all its synonyms, because people are resistant to change!

Next post:  Change in steps

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Quit Apologizing, Over-Explaining and Justifying!

The session was hosted by identical twins Josie Gillan and Laurel McLay.  Josie identified herself as the right-brained twin and introduced her sister as the left-brained twin.  Josie demonstrated her right-brained nature by indicating her loud-print trousers.  Laurel was wearing a scarf with the same loud print, which is all that Josie could convince her sister to do!

Who here thinkjs they apologize too much?  Or wonders if they apologize too much without realizing it?” Josie asked.  There were Apology Bingo charts on the tables.  They contained mitigating words such as the following:

  • um
  • uh
  • really
  • generally

Josie played a video of herself explaining this concept.  She used all these words, especially “purely generalizing“.  Laurel expressed her surprise when she first saw this video because she knows what a strong speaker her sister is!

I first came across this concept of mitigating words about a decade ago.  Tara Sophia Mohr had published a book called Ten Rules for Brilliant Women.  There was a workbook available online, which I remember completing.  One of the rules was to stop using the word just to mitigate your request.

Josie asked the audience to identify her mitigating words.  I appreciate her openness in inviting us to identify her errors so that we could learn from her mistakes!  One audience member stated that she kept starting her sentences with the word but.  Josie agreed and explained that this equates to negating herself, without realizing it.  She went on to explain the root of the word apology.  I loved this part because I adore etymology!  The word apology comes from the Greek word apologos, which means story or moral fable.  The intent is to acknowledge and honor the story.

University of Waterloo (my alma mater and also represented at GHC 17!) scholar Corinna Schumann published the following findings:

  • Men apologize less often than women
  • The threshold of offensiveness is higher for men (audible gasps from the audience)

Another author had published a book titled How to Become a Canadian Without Even Trying.  The Canadians in the audience (myself included) cheered.  Canadians are known for their tendency to apologize.  I remember a cartoon that featured the Olympic podium.  This was during the Vancouver 2014 Olympics where Canada won several gold medals.  The cartoon depicted the gold medallist on the podium saying “Sorry” to the silver and bronze medallists.  This was how you could identify that he was a Canadian!

The book outlined 12 different ways of apologizing:  the royal apology, the subservient apology, etc.  British, Japanese and Korean cultures were also brought to the forefront as master apologists.

Next post:  Good girls and perfectionists


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Let It Go – Am I My Own Worst Critic?

There is a walnut-shaped area in the base of the brain that contains bad memories.  Brain scans have shown that female brains are very active and light up red in that area.  We all file away negative experiences.  The problem is that women keep opening the filing cabinet!  (audience laughter).  Men:

  • Learn from it
  • Drop it
  • Move on

This approach is internalized early in “boy culture”.

Tammy discussed a book called The Confidence Quote.  It outlines how women tend to over-prepare.  Ariane could relate to this.  She drew a clever and original analogy:  she visualizes a racetrack around which “perfect Ariane” is running smoothly, while regular, flawed Ariane gives it her best effort.  Ariane and “perfect Ariane” don’t always run in parallel.

Kaycee agreed that repeatedly visiting the filing cabinet is detrimental to our progress and emotional well-being, but how do we stop?  What worked for her is taking an actionable step from the negative feedback.  She knows that she takes criticism personally and handles it by saying, “Maybe this is about me as a person … but it doesn’t mean I can’t change!

Dawn cautioned us to be careful who we thank for their feedback because we may not want to encourage more feedback from that particular person!  The panelists agreed that it was important to separate feedback into two categories:

  • Business feedback:  You filled out the wrong form
  • Personal feedback:  Your style really isn’t working

Tammy returned to her studies.  It appears that men have 2 core fears in the workplace:

  1. She will cry
  2. I will get angry

Ariane humorously stated that she aspires to help her managers face their fears and grow as human beings.  This led to much audience laughter.  Ariane acknowledged that she is a crier.  She has made her peace with it.  She knows that it is because she feels so passionately about her product and her team.  This reminded me of my Lean In book club with the W.I.S.E (Women In Search of Excellence) employee resource group at Dell.  One of the chapters discussed crying in the workplace.  A fellow engineer mentioned that sometimes she has found herself with tears in her eyes for exactly the same reason as Ariane:  she feels passionately about her product.  I remarked that I have often felt angry.  Another participant explained that sometimes anger can mask sadness.

After an emotional discussion, Ariane handles the situation by sending her colleagues the following items in an email:

  • Breakdown of consequences
  • Action Plan

The above shows that although there were tears, Ariane was listening, she’s actively engaged, she’s involved and she wants to grow as an engineer.

Kaycee described an emotional interaction of her own.  She had her performance review with her manager and some of the feedback wounded her.  When she exited, she was visibly upset.  A male colleague asked her what happened.  She said, “I had my performance review and it got a little emotional in there.  I may have cried a little.”  Kaycee laughingly exclaimed that her colleague showed no empathy!  He just could not relate to her situation at all.  Since then, she has learned to embrace her emotions and move through them.  When she gets feedback such as “You’re not technical enough“, instead of feeling hurt and offended, she asks probing, specific questions on where she can gain the necessary expertise.

Tammy returned to her studies.  A group of adults, male and female, were given a specific task to perform.  They were then given their results (binary –  success or failure) and asked why they succeeded or failed.

Women attributed their success to:  effort, task ease and luck.

Men attributed their success to:  skill

Women explained their failure with the statement:

  • I tried.  I just couldn’t do it.

Men explained their failure with the statements:

  • You didn’t give me enough time!
  • The instructions weren’t clear.

This reminded me of Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk.  She asked some successful interview candidates why they landed the job.  The men replied, “Because I’m awesome!  (Like, why are you even asking?)”  The women replied, “I’m so blessed; I’m so thankful; I had a lot of help; I got lucky.”

Tammy shared a joke she had read.  A woman tries on a pair of pants and cannot make them fit.  She stares at the mirror and thinks, “I need to go on a diet!”  A man has the same experience.  He stares at the mirror and thinks, “There’s something wrong with these pants!

Ariane talked about fixing broken builds at her workplace.  When the build notification went out to everyone as “broken”, Ariane immediately assumed it was something she had done.  She sent out an email saying, “It’s probably me” and worked on fixing the build.  95% of the time, it wasn’t her code but she found out whose code it was and also noted the solution along the way.  She thought that falling on her sword was her “doing a nice thing for the organization“.  To her surprise, it was not perceived that way.  The actual effect was that everyone assumed, “Ariane broke the build and fixed the mistake she introduced.”  In actuality, Ariane was fixing the mistakes of the people who had broken the build.  She had doubled her workload and taken on an extra side of blame as well!  Ariane learned the hard way that when she says “It’s probably me“, her male colleagues are likely to think “Yeah, totally her” and her fixing the build re-inforced this notion.

Ariane is an external processor.  She has to talk though the problem.  She already has the solution but she likes to talk it through and validate her understanding, as well as have the people around her identify potential loopholes and pitfalls.  What Ariane found was when she did this, her colleagues did not realize she was an external processor.  What she saw as “talking it through“, they saw as “me having to leave my own work to help Ariane solve a problem; she doesn’t know what she’s doing!”  Ariane reframed her methods.  She is still an external processor but when she approaches her colleagues, she now prefaces her request with the following statements:

  • I’d like to talk over this challenge with you.  I already have the solution but I need to talk it through.
  • Can I have 5 minutes of your time?

She is cognizant of the fact that other people may be internal processors and strives to convey respect for their time.  Appreciate and value the differences in the workplace.

Kaycee’s major takeaway from Tammy’s statistics was, “Wow.  I didn’t realize not everyone looked inward.”  She had previously thought that everyone was like her.

My major takeaway from the session was the following mantra, which I missed out on by being a girl and not participating in “boy culture”!

  • Learn from it
  • Drop it
  • Move on!

I am already beginning to see improvements in my work and life 😉

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