Tech & Work

How 'unconscious bias training' can fight hidden prejudices in the workplace

Companies are learning the ways they can turn off tech talent without even knowing it.

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In the grab for top tech talent, companies are looking for ways to better their odds of getting the people they want.

For some, this means figuring out the ways they might be unknowingly turning off good candidates — or even losing the ones they already have.

One strategy in this effort is unconscious bias training.

Unconscious biases are the "subtle instances where we misrecognize and misinterpret behaviors and it causes us to overlook things," said Catherine Ashcraft, senior research scientist for the National Center for Women in Information Technology.

There are a few things to unpack here. In more abstract terms, unconscious biases start with the psychological concept of schemas.

Schemas are the frameworks we construct that help us function by organizing and interpreting information. On the simple end, your schema for what a chair is (perhaps something with a surface for sitting, back support, legs) kept you from whigging out the first time you saw a recliner instead of a Shaker-back dining room chair. Humans wouldn't get much done if they existed in a state of constant wonder and confusion.

On the more complicated end of the spectrum, people develop schemas for roles like mother, or president, or places and events, even for ourselves. As we go along, our schemas can change and adapt to incorporate new information.

Schemas are good things, Ashcraft said, except for when they lead to unconscious biases. An employer's schema for what a leader is, or what a technical person is, might lead to the exclusion of those who are qualified, but don't fit the idea.

Unconscious bias training serves to surface these biases. That's important because unconscious biases are at work across industries and affect everyone — and everyone has them, like it or not.

Why unconscious bias matters

For Josh Ashton, senior director of people at SendGrid, there were two main reasons why SendGrid wanted to undertake unconscious bias training.

"First, it's the right thing to do," he said. Unconscious bias exists whether anyone likes it or not, and Ashton said understanding it better allows for increased mindfulness and awareness in both people's professional and personal lives.

His other reason: It's good for business. "We compete in a ultra-competitive technology space, any strategy — even if psychological — that gives us an advantage, is a good one," he said.

Part of the idea at work here is that by allowing unconscious biases to continue, companies could be missing out on talent, or losing talent without even fully realizing it.

NCWIT's training covers not only what unconscious bias is, but situations where it arises, and how to deal with it.

Meetings, for example, are places to watch out for certain behaviors. If the company culture is one in which ideas are beaten down, or only the loudest members of the team are heard, that can create a difficult environment for those who are quieter by nature, Ashcraft said.

"It also manifests in things like men tend to interrupt more in meetings, and again it's unconscious, they're not intending to do this," Ashcraft said. Or, "often times people will also maybe make a comment but when a woman says it, it doesn't always get picked up on. "Then later on someone makes a similar comment and it does get picked up on."

Long term, these little things build up when team member experiences a pattern of losing out on not only the chance to contribute, but the credit for when they do. The solution is as simple as meeting leaders making sure to point out if something was already voiced, or actively seeking the opinion of a quieter member during or after the meeting.

And it's important to remember, Ashcraft said, that these habits can come from and can be directed toward anyone.

Why it matters for women in tech

For every story on tech's "woman problem," there's a troop of folks who deny it. Sometimes, they say, because they have not seen it themselves.

Therein lies the point of addressing unconscious biases. They're unconscious.

"I think that unconscious bias language helps remove blame," Ashcraft said. While that's not to say there aren't overt biases still in existence, the subtle ones are the ones that are more difficult to combat.

Another common bias Ashcraft discussed is the language used in job postings, particularly in the tech industry. (Take a quick run through of the Tumblr Tech Companies Who Only Hire Men for an aggregation of job postings written with masculine language.) NCWIT helps companies realize when they're using phrases like "product guy" or other gender-loaded language creeps in.

"Making those changes helps expand the attractiveness of the the job to other kinds of men as well, not just women. It just broadens the pool all around," she said.

The same goes for the interview process.

That means "making sure that your interview questions are getting at the criteria that will make somebody successful in the job as opposed to finding out if they're like you, which is often times really what's going on there," Ashcraft said.

They also help companies audit their physical space for gender bias. While frat house-chic is in, it's also a way to only attract those to which that vibe appeals, for example.

Implementing training

Email intelligence company ReturnPath is an NCWIT Workforce Alliance member.

"Part of our reason for joining [NCWIT in the first place] was the stats that 55% of women leave mid-career and also, we knew our pipeline of women wasn't strong for our technical roles and we wanted to figure out how to make it stronger," said Cathy Hawley, senior director for people development.

They've had a number of initiatives geared toward evaluating their workplace, recruitment, and retention. In 2013, they did unconscious bias training with Ashcraft. It was an hour-long session and then they broke out into groups which included role playing.

They did another unconscious bias training at the end of last year.

Hawley said the effects of the trainings have stuck. Anecdotally, she hears it referenced in conversations. Managers might question out loud why they have the perceptions and expectations they have.

ReturnPath also incorporated the training into its onboarding process. Anyone involved with the hiring process gets trained.

In particular, they've talked a lot about the idea of the "growth mindset."

"When you approach people with a growth mindset, you don't think of them as a static person in time, you think of them as people have infinite possibilities of growing and developing," Hawley said.

She also said the training has allowed people to broach these subjects instead of feeling like they can't bring it up at work.

"I think generally when we go to do these presentations in person, we talk about how this is a more productive way of framing the issues," Ashcraft said.

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About

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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