About unconscious bias.

I have attended the IESE Women in Business Conference yesterday and despite wondering basically all day long what I was doing there, I think that in the end it was a day very well spent. For starters and on a very superficial note, the venue where it took place was impressive and with some beautiful sights of the city:

Then, although I have to admit that I suppose I understood about 25% of everything presented, I did pick up some valuable ideas to investigate more about and I have opened my eyes on a world previously unknown for me, but with so many exceptional people.

For instance, I found out that only 20% of the students in the process of becoming engineers are women and from these only 11% work in their corresponding field after graduating. This obviously impacts the present, but it will definitely impact the future also, since the people in charge of “creating” artificial intelligence are…well, mainly males.

Listening to Santiago Solanas, VP from Cisco, talking about diversity, inclusion and how his company is the best company to work with for many years kind of made me overwhelmed with nostalgia at the thought of my utter and complete ignorance when it comes to math.

I was inspired by Giovanna D’Esposito, now the General Manager of South West Europe for Uber and her story of defying the script her father had already written for her: get married by 21, live in that small place and do what you gotta do. I resonated with her manifesto of leadership by trust. And I fully agree that trust is impossible when people are not being their true selves.

I was delighted to hear more about the concept of neurodiversity and how workspaces are now designed taking into account this vast type of diversity also.

I could go on for yet another small novel, but I am learning to better control myself 🙂 It was a day full of debates, discussion and talks on inclusion, diversity, empowering and for me a quite unique insight in a world I tend to either ignore or judge way too often.

The most interesting thing that I learnt is the notion of unconscious bias. I am sorry if for you that was so extremely obvious, I have to say that I was ignorant about the details of this. Well, I knew, of course, that we were biased in (far too) many aspects of our lives and interactions and I had the notion that at least part of it was unconscious, but I never payed too much attention on the concept.

Until now, when I attended a workshop coordinated by Sophie van Gool and Erwin Hieltjes, on behalf of their project Moonshot Diversity and Inclusion.

There are details on their start-up here, but what they do is making the world a better place and I am not just saying that. It is completely true 🙂 They dream of closing the gender and diversity gaps, they want equal pay for equal work and they are taking action.

The exercise from the start of the workshop spoke volumes. We were all asked to stand up and 5 affirmations appeared on the screen, one by one. Should we not feel that the affirmation in question was applicable to us, we had to sit down. They were in lines of the fear of sexual harassment, confidence that your employer would judge or not your potential of having children when hiring you, career balance etc.

By the end, there were virtually only men standing, together with 3 young women whom I envied for their innocent view on life 🙂 Well, that is the issue they want to tackle. It is a great metaphor, I thought, and it is powerful to simply see it with your own eyes, in a room full of people from all walks of life.

Unconscious (or implicitbias is a stereotype that is automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal, and able to influence behavior. And it affects all of us more than we know.

For instance, I have searched for CEO on Google images and I found a vast majority of men. It seems that children, when requested to draw a scientist, tend to draw a man. These unconscious biases are everywhere and it is so difficult to acknowledge them within ourselves, because they are….unconscious 🙂 For instance, check this video:

Now, I am perfectly aware that there are female surgeons out there, actually I had teachers who were female surgeons and exceptional ones, I have female colleagues who are now neurosurgeons or breast cancer surgery specialist, but no…when I saw this video, myself and most of the colleagues from the workshop were trying to find the riddle, the catch… And it was, by all means, unconscious, for me. As Sophie said, we think about surgeons like blond tall handsome guys like in Grey’s Anatomy and we would think about God saving the child before actually realizing that women can be and actually are brilliant surgeons. This was really mind-blowing for me, I identified a huge bias and very surprising I might add.

Upon publishing their landmark paper in 1998, the team that came up with the concept described as “a new tool that measures the unconscious roots of prejudice” that they said affected 90-95% of people. Their methods were vastly criticized since then, but the concept stands.

Countless studies have confirmed the power of biases to shape almost all decisions, in almost every aspect of life. White job applicants were found to be 74% more likely to have success than applicants from ethnic minorities with identical CVs. US doctors have been found to recommend less pain medication for black or Latino patients than white patients with the same injury. And, check out this video:

Now, apparently the age between 5 and 7 is “critical” in terms of gender, race definitions and concepts, so education, as always, is so important. Look at this:

Other piece of advice from the workshop was to always speak up, no matter how difficult it might seem or how useless it might prove in that moment. Even the fact that this workshop existed and there were many debates during it is a great step forward.

There were many ideas presented all day, for instance CVs not revealing the gender and country or constant surrounding yourself with people with different biases, like this you can identify them more easily.

But from my point of view, education is key. Because in 2020 we still live in a world in which, per a Google study, for baby boys people are searching “is he a genius” and for baby girls they are interested in finding out if “she is overweight”….

Now, I can imagine training on this is hard and this is not an easy task. It was proven, it seems, that awareness on this topic can even make matters worse, since some people are actually shocked about their own biases that they kind of become “paralyzed” and stuck. But I still firmly believe in education and information and in small steps that can become gigantic in due course. How can we avoid passing our biases to the people we are trying to educate can, nevertheless, prove to be a very difficult challenge, I guess.

Did you identify any unconscious biases while reading this? Or before? Do share, don’t let me be the only feminist medical doctor who assumed that all surgeons are men….:( 🙂 I am blaming Grey’s Anatomy for that my weird brain, but still…a shock!

Featured Photo by Yiran Ding on Unsplash

3 replies

  1. Haha, I honestly think Grey’s is doing a hell of a job portraying women as kick-ass surgeons, in fact. Take Cristina, for example, I thought she was amazing! Not only was she a kick-ass surgeon (a fact that she was so vocal about, too: “Oh, screw beautiful. I’m brilliant. If you want to appease me, compliment my brain.”) but she was also empowering Meredith like crazy. Remember when she told her: “Don’t let what he wants eclipse what you need. He is very dreamy, but he is not the sun. You are!” ?
    I loved this scene, cause I want to think it’s actually showing how Cristina was kind of fighting these biases that we have, that only men are or can be great surgeons, and their partners, doctors or not, should adapt their lives so that men can thrive.

    Also Teddy, Callie, Arizona (and her mentor, Nicole, like omg, in utero fetal surgery sounds so kick-ass) and my list could go on. And even though this is not really about Grey’s, I know, I know, I just wanted to say that I think they’re very daring tackling a lot of sensitive subjects and even if they’ve become such a soap opera, I admire them for that. Remember that episode with the abused woman and the powerful hallway scene? I cried my eyes out watching that, kudos to them!

    I do agree we have thousands of biases, unfortunately, and it’s so effing difficult to overcome them, Jesus. Sometimes, I hear myself say things that make me wanna bang my head against a wall after realizing what I’ve just said.

    Lately, I’ve started listening to some podcasts. One is Esther Perel’s “Where should we begin”, the other two are “Mind Architect” (Romanian, by Paul Olteanu & co.) and “The Happiness Lab” (by Laurie Santos, professor at Yale). I am not ashamed to admit that sometimes I want to cry when I think of some of the issues they raise. Not because they’re so emotional, but because I realize how biased we are and how this affects our life in so many. sometimes stupid, ways.

    To really answer your question, off the top of my head I’m thinking of gender bias and confirmation bias. Guilty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, you are absolutely right, there is a lot of female empowerement and diversity and Christina was the absolute best, although Arizona is one of my favorite from the medical career point of view. Still, I was a victim of this unconscious bias even having watched Grey´s Anatomy a million times already, which is so incredibly sad and truly shocking. (I did give up when Derek d.i.e.d., so several seasons ago, but I watched some other relevant episodes, like the abuse one and the Jo story). Grey´s Anatomy is not bad at all, I was just using it as an example, like in that workshop. And I can honestly say I have never seen a surgeon even remotely close to McDreamy in terms of looks, so…it is pure science fiction 🙂

      Thanks for the podcast recommendations, I don´t know the Mind Arhitect one yet. Will check it out.

      Liked by 1 person

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