Unexamined biases manifest themselves quietly, sneaking into conversations unnoticed. Often confused with beliefs and values, they are things you inherently believe to be correct. A former colleague of mine gave a great example of this when working with clients; a woman will answer a question, and the client will instinctively turn to the man in the room to confirm her answer was correct. If questioned, the client will explain he just wanted a second opinion. In reality, he has never examined the possibility of a gender-based bias he holds in decision-making. The core of the problem is that biased actions and statements are indistinct, however normalizing such biases everyday poses a dangerous obstacle to personal and professional growth.
Unexamined bias envelops a large group of biases present in the workplace, like the comfort principle, where individuals with similar backgrounds, interests, and even genders feel they naturally gravitate towards each other. Unfortunately, women often demonstrate this by self-selecting into female-heavy groups where they honestly believe they will be the most comfortable. Much can be read into that statement of belief, but specifically it includes two important biases wholly unexamined; first, women are more comfortable around women. To achieve gender equality, gender must not be an issue in any decision made. With this comfort they see as natural, they are only widening the divide, essentially excluding themselves from collaborative opportunities outside of their comfort zone. Second, issues of gender bias are assumed to only target women. If someone is acting sexist, it is assumed it is against a woman. The danger of this normalization is it stalls movement and growth, where mindsets remain unchanged and positive change is discouraged.
As a former finance intern, my job wasn’t to observe people. I didn’t interpret mannerisms or assess cultural cues, I did bank reconciliations and assessed financial statements. However, there were many things I found hard not to notice, since they went so unnoticed. The most egregious in my mind is the inclination of women to preface their opinions and assertions of fact. It’s the quiet bias women carry, perpetuating it through company cultures by giving it value. For example, when discussing LinkedIn best practices for networking, one girl in the front raised her hand. She was inquiring into the merit of a background picture on her LinkedIn page, something we had not discussed nor was ever made clear. However, she, most likely without even noticing, prefaced this questions with, “this may be a silly question, but…” It’s not just the phrase, but the explanation for why it seems necessary before taking a risk in asking a question. Women often assume they must be perfect, that they will be penalized for risks rather than celebrated for it, as they believe men often are. Whether this is a confirmed occurrence or mere assumption, women are biased to believe that this is necessary for them.
Researching and writing about this topic during my summer internship gave me the impetus to co-found Women in Finance at Cal Poly, a special interest group that intends to provide resources and opportunities for finance students, while working to improve inclusivity and self-awareness within the Orfalea College of Business. It is no secret that women are noticeably absent from leadership roles in business, and are given fewer opportunities for promotion. However, it is important to acknowledge that this truth is a product of collective experience and unquestioned stereotypes, and strongly perpetuated by a biased classroom. Right now, we are in an excellent position to be agents of change, affecting our direct communities in overcoming biases. My community is an academic environment with 25% women and a predominantly male faculty: What is yours?
To enact change, we must first acknowledge the biases we hold, gender-based or otherwise. It is through this acknowledgment that we gain the power to redirect our communities towards awareness and inclusion.
An earlier version of this article was previously published on LinkedIn on August 1st, 2016.
The opinions of this author do not necessarily reflect Women in Business as a whole.