The Tech Industry's Unconscious Bias Problem
Go to any large enterprise IT business in the United States and you are likely to notice the lack of diversity in the faces you see across departments.
Many companies in the industry are actively focused on programs to address this lack of diversity in their employee ranks. Others are coming to the conclusion that the lack of diversity comes from unconscious biases that are prevalent in the workplace.
What exactly is unconscious bias? Does it exist in the IT industry, and what can be done to eliminate it? Companies that are serious about their efforts in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) should explore these questions and more.
What Is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious bias, often referred to as implicit bias, is an underlying stereotype or attitude that people unconsciously attribute to a person or group of people, which affects how they are understood and related to.
Why is this important for managers? Employees who perceive bias in the workplace are more likely to experience emotional distress and higher levels of disengagement, and their employer is likely to have lower employee retention rates, according to the 2017 analysis of a research study published in the Harvard Business Review. According to that study, nearly one in 10 of the 1,000 employees surveyed reported bias within their company.
A May 2021 report on workplace culture and inclusion from training company Emtrain showed that out of 83,000 participating employees at 100 companies, 58% do not feel their employer has clearly defined its diversity and inclusion goals, and 67% believe their company leaders should be doing more to make them feel included and create a sense of belonging.
Clearly, there is work to be done to reduce unconscious bias in the workplace and to create a more diverse, inclusive environment.
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The Different Forms of Unconscious Bias
The concept of unconscious bias brings to mind racial stereotyping, and this is indeed one form of unconscious bias. There are many other types of unconscious biases that, although not as negative as racial stereotyping, can still influence hiring decisions, promotions, compensation and job responsibilities.
One such type of unconscious bias is affinity bias. Affinity bias is when someone feels a connection or affinity with another person because they see similarities between themselves and the other person. This commonly occurs when companies hire for “culture fit,” thinking that a candidate will fit in well with their team or department based on those similarities. Rather than looking similarities, companies should look at the job candidate’s skills, unique qualities and experiences. The focus should not be on an employee “fitting in” but rather creating a sense of belonging and inclusivity for each employee.
Another common unconscious bias is gender bias, in which a person unconsciously leans toward a person of one gender, typically males. Job candidates may be equally qualified with appropriate skillsets and experience, but unconscious gender bias can steer a business to hire the male candidate. This bias is widespread across industries and countries. The first United Nations Development Programme Gender Social Norms Index analyzed data from 75 countries and revealed that almost half of those polled feel that men are superior political leaders, while more than 40% believe that men make better business executives and are more entitled to jobs when the economy is down.
Names are also a common area for unconscious bias. In some cases, candidates are hired or not hired based on their name alone. Studies have found that African American-sounding names get callbacks 10% less than white-sounding names, so a job seeker named LaShawnda has a 10% less chance of getting hired than a Susan does, simply because of her name. Blind application screenings, which exclude a candidate's name or interests, are one way to avoid gender or name bias.
Yet another unconscious bias is beauty bias, that is, a bias towards people that could be considered attractive. Although appearance other than race is not legally protected against discrimination, it is a common bias in business. A well-qualified job candidate may not be hired simply because the employer found another candidate to be more attractive.
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Why Is There Unconscious Bias in IT?
Unconscious bias exists in the workplace because of how we are socialized, said Chris Tompkins, a Los Angeles-based consultant, speaker and life coach at A Road Trip To Love. He is also the author of the book "Raising LGBTQ Allies: A Parent's Guide to Changing the Messages From the Playground."
No matter who we are or where we come from, “we all play on the same playground," he said. "There are certain collective societal messages, or 'messages from the playground,' that we absorb by virtue of being socialized in the dominant culture. As a result, we develop certain belief systems that influence our decisions, in this case, who the IT industry hires.”
When Dr. Erika Pryor, principal and founder of EPiC Creative + Design, began attending IT, startup and tech-related events in 2009, there were only a few women and just a handful of people of color at any given event, and at times she was the only woman of color in attendance. Now, in 2021, things have somewhat improved, she said, and more people of color have made their way into the IT industry and its associated organizations and meetup groups.
“Many of those organizations and groups have a national presence, which is quickly creating a black tech nationwide ecosystem with localized ecosystems as well," Pryor said. "However, it's important to note that these ecosystems emerged because it was clear there wasn't a lot of space for people of color in tech from the gatekeeper’s perspective."
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How Can Organizations Eliminate Unconscious Bias?
Tompkins said the best way to eliminate unconscious bias is to put a name on it so that it can be addressed at work, at home and in school. Additionally, he suggested that people have more conversations about it.
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“When we have open and honest conversations we’re able to see unconscious bias in the workplace — become willing to make change," he said. "Once we have awareness, all we need is our willingness to make change.”
To make those changes, businesses should re-evaluate hiring and promotion practices, and become vigilant and aware of how unconscious bias plays a role in decision making. That means recognizing affinity bias and stop trying to find employees that are a “good fit.” The focus should instead be on finding employees that will bring diverse ideas to the table.
“We are all so tired of hearing, ‘We can't find qualified candidates of color,’ or, ‘None of the candidates of color seemed like a good fit,’" Pryor said. "We are applying to those positions, we are in your network, we are working at your company now, but you don't see people of color. Oftentimes our contributions are devalued or stolen and presented by another or we are simply not given a chance because we are always already ‘not a good fit’ for a workplace not designed to embrace diversity in a meaningful way.”
When job candidates are evaluated based on their qualifications and experience, rather than arbitrary biases that do not contribute to or detract from a person’s worth, companies lose out on a potential employee that could have contributed to their success.
“And frequently because candidates of color typically have more experience than their white counterparts in the same position and are compensated less, evaluating your hiring practices around experience could reveal to you how these phrases illustrate unconscious bias and racialized practices which help ensure women and people of color don't advance in your organization,” Pryor said.
Technology's Role in Fighting Unconscious Bias
While there is unconscious bias in every industry, the IT industry is in a good position to eradicate it using technology. Analytics technology in particular can be used to detect and correct unconscious bias.
“Businesses across industries are prioritizing diversity and inclusion initiatives and finding that analytic technology can help accelerate them,” said Charyn Faenza, principal industry consultant at Cary, N.C.-based software company SAS. Faenza suggested business leaders use analytic technology to consider both:
- Internal bias: “Analytics can detect subtle data patterns that reveal hidden bias in an organization’s internal practices, including hiring, promotion and compensation,” she said.
- External bias: “Analytics can also reveal hidden bias in an organization’s external interactions and business practices. Banks might look for potential bias in credit risk and underwriting decisions, for example.”
While technology can play a positive role in battling bias, it’s vital to ensure that algorithms are properly trained and using the right data. Not all algorithms are created equal, Faenza said.
"There's a big difference between black box and white box AI," she said. "Poorly trained AI algorithms — or algorithms that use flawed data — can actually reinforce or even amplify prejudice. Data governance and model management are also essential considerations.”
Companies cannot simply deploy technological solutions for unconscious bias and consider the problem solved, as all of the technology-based solutions were created by people. “There is a great tendency to assume the algorithm is always right," Faenza said. "But algorithms are built by people who have their own explicit and implicit biases.”
All data modelers need to be trained on the impact that bias can have on outcomes, and they need to know how to test their models for bias. Data can be infiltrated by unconscious bias.
“Underlying data is a common source of bias as a reflection of the biases of the people who entered or created the data," Faenza said. "Carefully selecting training data sets and ensuring accurate, high-quality data, while reducing the amount of information related to protected characteristics, are good first steps to managing bias in your data.”
The bottom line for organizations is that unconscious bias in the workplace is the cause of unfair hiring, promotion and compensation practices, and can result in employees being less productive, less engaged, and less likely to be retained. Becoming more aware of the unconscious biases within the IT industry is a step to eliminate them and strengthen and improve diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the workplace.