When you Face Unconscious Bias

Tracy Roesler bio photo By Tracy Roesler Comment

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× NOTE: Over the next couple of weeks I will discuss both unconscious and conscious bias. These are tricky subjects -- there are resources with have great suggestions, predominantly for conscious bias. As a result, I'll save a lot of the references for that discussion.

It has happened to me more than once. The coworker who questions your ability to do a job once and a while. There are the wide eyes and comments when you wear something beyond the standard jeans and t-shirt. You leave the conversation with a feeling of:


So you ponder and reflect: while it is never expressly mentioned your treatment is due to being an other, you know they wouldn’t raise the same objection if a man completed the work. They would not make the same comments to a male colleague. You feel ashamed, and incompetent and angry all at once. But how should you respond?

Is it REALLY Unconscious?

It’s tough to determine whether or not the bias is intentional or not. It takes some semblance of gut instinct.

Here’s a personal example: I took over a java project from a colleague when I started one of my jobs. It was a complicated framework, and took me a little bit of time to come up to speed (frankly, it was unnecessarily complicated and messy). Anyway, I started making commits; every change I would check in, he would go back in and rewrite, even though he was not supposed to be working on the project. Every time I wrote code he told me I was doing it the “wrong” way. I noticed this happened much fewer with my male co-workers, even though a lot of their code didn’t even work.

I honestly don’t think he ever once considered that it was because I was a woman. He certainly never said something otherwise. But in observing his other behaviors, I knew. He was raised in an environment where women were revered for their roles sure, but their roles were not necessarily that of “developer”. But it hurt, and it was very tough to be constantly belittled and have my skills questioned.

So What Now?

First Step: The first thing you should do is spend some time observing the person. Determine whether it’s a pattern of behavior, with all people (devs can be arrogant you know), or if it’s just with a particular subset of people. Is he aware what he’s doing?

I once was forbidden from speaking with one of our devs until I knew enough information because he couldn’t abide ignorance or stupidity. He wasn’t biased based on my gender, just hated people who opened their mouths without knowing what they were talking about. We ended up working together swimmingly (although disallowing me from speaking to him may have been inappropriate).

Second Step: Figure out whether it’s impacting your ability to get work done? Sure it’s infuriating, but can you accomplish what you need to get done without relying on this person’s input?

Third Step: If you cannot avoid, and you cannot brush off, bring up your observations with a 3rd party, whether a mutual boss or somebody who is around you both and can offer an opinion. They can provide feedback from a more dispassionate place, and give a different perspective.

Fourth Step: Decide how you want to approach the situation. Unconscious bias is difficult because calling somebody on it will often result in denial. In other cases, it can elucidate something within them of which they were not aware. Decide whether it’s worth getting somebody in an official capacity involved. I urge you to consider discussing your concerns directly with the person (although I know this is not always the best plan).

Fifth Step: Execute your plan. Whatever that plan is, whatever you want to do, you need to take steps to enact it. There are so many options, whether it’s complete avoidance (not always possible), or migrating teams, speaking to the person directly, finding a support network to vent to, or just learning to find and restore your inner peace. Or maybe it’s a combination of multiple things. Execution is key here. Doing nothing will change nothing.

In Summary

Through it all though, no matter what you face, stay strong! Sometimes it’s tough. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s almost unendurable.

Quick Meme

I am so fortunate to be in a great position right now, with incredible coworkers who treat me with respect and equality. But I also know that I’ve been in the industry long enough that I, ironically, unconsciously brush off unconscious bias because it’s just the easiest way to survive. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing in general, but it does make the days easier.


Here are a few good articles about unconscious bias:

For Leaders: http://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecomaford/2016/06/25/how-leaders-bust-unconscious-biases-in-business/2/#31b439ef12d5
Finding Your Own Bias: https://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2015/dec/14/recognise-overcome-unconscious-bias
Study in Bias: http://www.cookross.com/docs/UnconsciousBias.pdf

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