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.


About Saranya Murthy

Writing is my life's work.
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