Women in Tech and the Problem of Implicit Bias
What it is, where it comes from, and how to change it
When people talk about the low, low numbers of women in tech and other STEM fields, an oft-cited cause is implicit bias. But while this phrase is often used, it is not often explained.
Most of us understand the general concept – men and women in our culture have an unintentional, unconscious bias against women and other minorities. This makes it difficult for women to get hired in the tech industry, but also makes it hard for them to stay if they are fighting an uphill battle for respect and advancement.
But knowing this, isn’t it enough that we members of the tech industry simply make the choice to be fair? To assess potential hires and promotions based only on their merit, to treat our colleagues with respect regardless of gender? Because fairness is, after all, what we all want. No one wants to replace one unfair bias with another unfair bias.
There are several scientific studies that answer this question [ref 1], but let’s talk about one that focuses on people specifically trained to be objective and fair – scientists themselves. A group of biology, chemistry, and physics researchers (male and female) were each given one of two resumes. They were asked if, based on the resume alone, if they would hire that person to work in their research laboratories, and if so what their salary would be. The two resumes were identical to the letter, except that one was for Jennifer, and one was for John.
Across both male and female researchers, they were significantly more likely to hire John than Jennifer. And of those who would have hired Jennifer, they gave her a significantly lower salary than those who would have hired John.
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Simply choosing to be fair is not enough. To understand why this is, and what we can really do to overcome our biases, we have to talk about the human brain.
“Across both male and female researchers, they were significantly more likely to hire John than Jennifer. And of those who would have hired Jennifer, they gave her a significantly lower salary than those who would have hired John.”
The Subconscious Machine
Your subconscious mind carries out many functions, but one of its major functions is simply to find patterns. And while you certainly can look for and identify patterns consciously, your subconscious is doing this every moment of every day, taking in and processing all your sensory input. And this is because finding patterns is really useful. If you can realize and remember that every time a bush rustles, a tiger jumps out and tries to eat you, then every time a bush rustles you’ll know to get the heck out of there and live to fight (and reproduce!) another day.
That’s a very simplistic example, of course. The complexity and subtlety of the patterns that your subconscious brain can detect can be surprising. Legendary tennis player and longtime coach Vic Braden began to notice something when he was in his seventies. When he watched a tennis match, he always knew when a player was about to double fault. This means that a player misses the second of his or her two chances to successfully hit a serve – something that might happen three or four times in a match where a player hits hundreds of serves. On one match where he kept track, he successfully predicted 16 out of 17 double faults. But he couldn’t explain how he knew. The player would toss the ball and draw back their arm, and he would suddenly blurt out that the player was going to double fault. It was a mystery, even to himself [ref 2].
“Your subconscious mind carries out many functions, but one of its major functions is simply to find patterns. And while you certainly can look for and identify patterns consciously, your subconscious is doing this every moment of every day, taking in and processing all your sensory input.”
Now, this is a long way from recognizing that a tiger might leap out of a rustling bush, but a pattern is a pattern. Braden had been playing tennis and training world class tennis players his whole life. When his subconscious brain observed a tennis player moving in a certain way, it said to him, “Nope. That’s not how you move if you want to hit a serve. That doesn’t fit the pattern.”
Although Braden recognized a double fault when he saw one, he couldn’t consciously explain how. This is because the subconscious brain doesn’t “speak” the same language as your conscious brain. The subconscious speaks through emotion, intuition, your gut, your instincts. This is the language by which subconscious brains have directed the behavior of animals since animals have been around. Not only can it be hard to interpret what your subconscious is telling you, but when it’s giving you a nudge, most of the time you won’t even notice.
A study at the University of Iowa [ref 3] had participants sit down in front of four decks of cards, two red and two blue. The participants played a simple game. Draw one card at a time, from any deck. Each card would have you gain or lose a certain amount of money. The goal: maximize the amount of money you gain. Some of these decks were better than others for this, but the participants had to figure out which was which for themselves. After going through about 50 cards, the participants had a hunch that the red cards were a bad idea. After 80, they had no doubts. But after ten cards, the participants’ palms started to sweat every time they reached for one of the red decks. We know, because they were rigged up to polygraph-like machines that measure the stress response of sweaty palms. That was their subconscious brain speaking up, telling them the red cards were bad news. But it took another 40 cards before the conscious brain began to pick up on it.
So far, this may not sound so bad. You have a supercomputer in your head, magically finding patterns in the world around you, quietly guiding you through your day. Your subconscious is indeed powerful, and this work that it does is necessary – it frees up your conscious brain from making millions of tiny decisions every day, allowing you to focus your conscious attention where it is needed. Unfortunately, your subconscious is not infallible. What if Vic Braden had never actually seen a tennis player double fault before? A pattern is only as good as the statistical sample it came from. Wait! Don’t fall asleep on me yet! This will be painless, I promise.
“This is because the subconscious brain doesn’t “speak” the same language as your conscious brain. The subconscious speaks through emotion, intuition, your gut, your instincts.”
Let’s say I have a question about trees. How tall are they? The most accurate way to answer that question is to go and measure the height of every single tree on the planet Earth. I will get a perfectly accurate description of all the different heights trees can be. But who has the time for that? In this example (and in the reality of scientific research) no one does. So instead, I will take a sample, a smaller number of trees that I can measure with a reasonable amount of time and effort. But if I find a pattern in my smaller sample, I have a new question. Is this the same pattern I would have found if I measured every tree on the planet? The long answer to that question is the field of statistics. The short answer is, it depends on the sample.
Most of us know that if my sample is tiny, chances are good that the pattern I found is not real. Measuring the two trees in my yard won’t cut it. But even a large sample can be misleading if it is a biased sample. If I measure 200 trees from a variety of species, but I found them all in a bonsai garden, that’s a problem.
The sample your subconscious brain has to work with is limited to what you have experienced in your life. Your brain does have some mechanisms that are sensitive to sample size, but if you’re in an emotionally charged situation – say, you could stand to win a lot of money if you could just figure out which cards to draw – your subconscious will offer up a pattern pretty quickly. Better that than nothing at all. But your subconscious has no way of knowing if the sample is biased. And for many purposes, it doesn’t need to know. If you live on the arctic tundra where there are no bushes, there’s no need to learn that in some parts of the world rustling bushes is a dangerous sign. But in the world we live in today, this limitation can do us a huge disservice.
The Pattern of Our Lives
Think back to when you were a kid, and while you were growing up, and while you were entering your career. Every time you saw an adult and were told “this person is an engineer”, what was that person’s gender? And not just in real life, but in TV shows, movies, books, commercials, and comics. Every time you saw an adult labelled as a scientist, a programmer, a CEO, a president, what was that person’s gender? Was it a man 80% of the time? 95%? In the case of US presidents, 100%?
That is a very large sample, and a very strong pattern, that your subconscious has been absorbing since you were very young. So when you see a young girl and she says, “I want to be an engineer!”, your subconscious brain quietly reaches out and pokes you. It says, “Uh uh. Doesn’t fit the pattern.” You may as well be Vic Braden watching a tennis player who is about to double fault. You don’t know why, but you’re certain it won’t end well.
And the worst part is, it’s not just your brain. It’s not just the brains of all the adults around that young girl. It’s her own brain, too, casting doubt on her own choices.
Our implicit biases exert a quiet, powerful force on our everyday decisions. And our subconscious minds have been passively trained by the world around us, for most of our lives, to have those biases. And this is why simply making the choice to change is not enough. If you’ve never before trained as a runner in your life, you can’t wake up one morning and decide to run a marathon that afternoon. Such lifelong training (or lack thereof) can’t be undone in a day. But by making use of our fancy conscious brains, we can take charge of re-training our own subconscious brains.
“Our implicit biases exert a quiet, powerful force on our everyday decisions. And our subconscious minds have been passively trained by the world around us, for most of our lives, to have those biases. And this is why simply making the choice to change is not enough.”
Changing the Pattern
Now that we know where our biases come from, we can attack their very foundation – the sample of information your brain has to work with. We have to provide our internal pattern finding machine with new, better data.
Studies have shown [ref 4] that our unconscious, biased responses can be changed by being regularly exposed to counter-stereotypical examples, and learning more about the individual people from the group we’re biased against. Look up the smart, capable women in your industry. Read about their work, attend talks and presentations they’re giving in your area. Better yet, hire these women to work alongside you. Every day you spend with them is another day of data for your subconscious brain to chew on. All this will also provide you with ammunition when you start falling into old patterns of thought. If you find yourself thinking or saying a general statement about women as a group (“Well, many women just aren’t interested in engineering”), take a moment to stop and ask yourself where this thought came from. And then think about all these successful female engineers you now know and work with, who love what they do.
And yet, this brings us back full circle. How can we hire truly qualified women if our biases are constantly tampering with our assessment of them?
“Studies have shown that our unconscious, biased responses can be changed by being regularly exposed to counter-stereotypical examples, and learning more about the individual people from the group we’re biased against.”
Think of it like trying to walk a straight line in a featureless desert. You’re lost, and you simply want to walk in a straight line until you hit civilization. But unknown to you, you have a limp. Your left leg is just a few millimeters shorter than your right. Every step you take leads you further astray, but the effect is so small you don’t notice it at first – until eventually you find yourself going in a giant circle. What do you do? With time and practice, you will one day learn to correct your gait, but in the meantime you’re dying of thirst. So, you over correct. You aim a little to the right.
As a culture, we have a limp. And until we can correct that limp, until we can re-train our subconscious brains to stop pulling us in one direction, we have to consciously aim ourselves in the other direction. This is why I personally believe that we must, in fact, bias hiring practices towards women. If you are faced with two candidates who seem to be equally qualified, but one is a woman and the other is a man, give the woman the opportunity. After all, chances are good that she is actually more qualified than you think she is. And if you don’t hire her, you may actually end up hiring the less qualified candidate.
If we can change the pattern, we can make our companies stronger (several studies [ref 5] show that more diverse teams perform better). We can secure the future of our industry (and the vast number of STEM jobs that we’ll have difficulty filling without women). And if we can change the pattern, not just in our industries but in our media and broader culture, then we can change the way people will look at every young girl who wants to be an engineer. We can change the way she will feel about herself and her goals. We can give her the freedom, both inside and out, to follow her dreams.
The book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” By Malcom Gladwell
Interested in learning more? Let’s start a conversation.