Unconscious bias in the workplace (2)

Author: Avis Yates Rivers (Follow on Twitter: @SitWithAvis)

biasLast month I explained in detail what unconscious bias is and why it matters. This month, I’ll deal with how unconscious bias (or micro inequities) disproportionately affect women and people of color in the workplace. I’ll also explore what some companies are doing to combat this phenomenon.

If you didn’t read last month’s blog, I encourage you to do so before reading this one. It really lays the foundation and explains what unconscious bias is and why it is important to recognize and deal with it.

Certainly women have made inroads in corporate America, but a Pew Research Center survey released recently points at why women struggle to climb to the corporate world’s highest ranks—and often tone down their ideas, hide behind an agreeable façade, or leave the workplace altogether.

In fact, studies show that technical women leave the workplace at middle management 56% of the time. That’s twice the quit rate of men. The reasons most stated for leaving include an unwelcome environment or bad supervisor relationship.

Four out of 10 surveyed in the Pew study said that there are double standards for women seeking the highest levels of leadership in politics or business. They added that women have to outshine their male counterparts—and more than one-third of respondents believe the electorate and corporate America are not ready to put more women in top leadership positions.

Why is that?

Quite simply, as a result of a lifetime of absorbing the same images and representations, men are more likely, on television and elsewhere, to be seen in the workplace. It affects the way men see women and the way women see themselves. It’s not just men but women too who have ingrained expectations of workplace roles.

When you look at the representations of African Americans or Hispanics in leadership roles, the numbers are even more distorted; in fact, they are woeful! It is just in the most recent television season that we have more than one prime time television show or series that stars an African American or Hispanic in the leading role.

Consequently, women and people of color are not seen in roles of leadership – either in the media or in the workplace. As such, a bias is established in the minds of hiring managers that prevents them from selecting qualified female or minority candidates to fill certain roles.

The first step to solving this problem is recognizing that it exists and that it robs the organization of creativity and productivity. That recognition begins at the top as demonstrated by several corporate leaders of late. Here’s how they are choosing to solve the problem of unconscious bias in their companies:

One simple thing some companies are doing to eliminate the potential for bias to creep into their hiring practice is to strip resumes of names and other identifying information and just assign each resume a number.

Roche Diagnostics, a subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Roche Group, is aiming to make its managers more aware of unconscious bias. It held two bias acquaintance sessions with its senior and middle managers in recent months as well as a third at its national sales meeting this past January.

According to Bridget Boyle, VP of HR at Roche Diagnostics, in addition to ongoing training to highlight unconscious bias, the company broadened its recruitment and promotion policies in 2013. More than half of its lower level employees were women but their presence began to thin in middle management.

To spark change, the company instituted a mentor policy that paired 150 sets of employees over 18 months. It’s also strengthening maternity and paternity benefits and assuring diverse slates of candidates for the 750-800 openings it fills each year.

Royal Bank of Canada started an effort in May 2013 to raise awareness of bias among its 78,000 employees worldwide. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard University social ethics professor who co-authored Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, has held sessions for about 1,000 of RBC’s executives to help alert them of their biases.

In addition to these meetings, employees have access to tests developed by Harvard to assess their unconscious biases and apply their personal findings in workshops. These sessions, says Norma Tombari, RBC’s director of global diversity, are continuing in 2015 as part of the company’s “entire talent management decision-making.”

Intel’s CEO, Brian Krzanich, announced at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show that he was committing $300 million to ensure his workforce achieves ‘full representation’ by 2020. This is a bold move not seen before in diversity initiatives, and he has put himself and Intel out front in terms of public accountability.

To be sure, their strategy needs to address a myriad of complex issues, but I applaud Mr. Krzanich for his bold leadership.

These and other bold moves are what is needed to improve the situation. Despite such concerted efforts, change won’t be sudden, however. It has taken years to get conditioned this way. It’s a learning process that has to be diligently undone over a period of time.

The good news is that companies have finally begun to recognize and acknowledge they have a problem. As we all know, that’s the first and most crucial step to achieving a change in behavior.


Coffee breaks and community building

Author: Ingrid Melve (Follow on Twitter: @imelve)

Spring with snow and rain, as is the custom in our corner of Europe. And gatherings for discussing internet campus challenges, as is the custom of UNINETT. First there was the network people in March discussing the long term plan for network building both of the core national network and the campus networks. Then in April the collaboration and video people looking at lectures online, lecture capture, flipped classrooms, collaboration tools and other education tools.

On both occasions there were two major trends:

  1. Campus best practice documentation
  2. Coffee break discussions
Campus best practice meeting on video and collaboration tools, April 14-15. Photo: Mattis Daae

Campus best practice meeting on video and collaboration tools, April 14-15.
Photo: Mattis Daae

Campus best practice
Campus best practice documentation is prepared by working groups, and the drafts are presented to the higher ed community in open gatherings both online and in physical meetings. Best practice documents are discussed and lifted from text to actual best practice through the community, in the same way as the best practice was written down by the working group. This seesaw of best practice and documentation goes back and forth, and enables us to standardize and improve the internet. Why do UNINETT as a NREN invite to such gatherings? Because we need a better internet.

Killer app
The killer app for campus networks right now is digital assessment. Digital assessment solutions are putting major challenges to the existing infrastructure, both in terms of availability and reliability. The institutions who have put in place infrastructure in compliance with the campus best practice documents are now reaping the benefits of having a capable infrastructure ready for use, whereas the laggards are having to invest significant sums.

Calendar vs. cloudservice coffee break
My favorite coffee break was when I was sipping coffee in no-mans-land between a clutch of calendar-gazing sysadmins on one side, and major discussion on the benefits and pitfalls of cloud services on the other. The calendar configuration for a college up north was up on a laptop, with examples on how to pull information automatically in to a lecture capture system. Immediately afterwards the two colleges listening had signed up as beta testers for new functionality (and bonded over the coffee). The cloud service discussion on my left side was about what the real life choices are on campus, and could have been presented as a plenary discussion at any conference, except the persons involved are too shy to put on a stage.

Building a better internet for students, staff and faculty
The mix of sysadmins, IT managers, pedagogical support personell and others make for interesting discussions. They all share a goal: building a better internet for their own students, staff and faculty.

The official program for the gatherings are a mix of information about new technology, discussions on what the needs are, as well as information about what has happened on campus since last time. And about what has happened in the clouds. And about what has happened internationally. But the most important part of the official program is to seed the coffee break discussions.

I am looking forward to the coffee in Porto!

Unconscious Bias and Why it Matters to Women In Tech

Author: Avis Yates Rivers (Follow on Twitter: @SitWithAvis)

We’ve been hearing a lot about unconscious bias lately and this is especially true as it relates to women and people of color in the technology workplace. Companies are recognizing that to be successful in diversifying their tech workforce, they have to first understand why these groups are missing in the first place.

First, let’s make sure we understand what I mean by unconscious bias. It is also known as implicit bias which refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. This bias applies to how we perceive other people.

As you can imagine, conscious bias is easy to spot; unconscious bias, not so much. When conscious bias exists, behaviors are negative and hurtful; and we have many examples of this in modern history. Unconscious bias, as you can imagine, is more stealth, harder to recognize, and even more difficult to thwart. Prevailing stereotypes portrayed in the media or learned through past experiences can be triggered by events and operate without conscious intention.

For example, a common stereotype in the tech industry is that men are better suited for these jobs due to their aptitude in math (and girls are not good at math). To drill down even further, white and Asian males are the best candidates – borne out by the fact that it’s what we see portrayed everywhere we look. As a result, it has developed into a bias that is commonly held today.

The thing is; we are all biased. Both men and women share and apply the same assumptions about gender. As Project Implicit uncovered, there is just a natural association between gender and science as seen here. 72% of their study respondents (male and female) had an automatic association of science with males and liberal arts with females, compared with 10% who had the opposite reaction.


Since implicit stereotypes can be activated by the environment and operate outside of intentional conscious cognition, this study perpetuates the stereotype that men are better in science and math. It’s an example of the many schemas at work in our brains.

Schemas are shortcuts that our brains create to help us process all the information coming at us at the speed of light. These schemas allow us to make decisions faster and sometimes make assumptions to the detriment of others. For example, people who work in tech are white males. That’s what our schemas tell us because that’s what we see portrayed 99% of the time. So when women or people of color apply for computing opportunities, it’s harder for them to be successful.

Unconscious bias and a similar phenomenon called micro-inequities (subtle, often unconscious, messages that devalue, discourage and impair workplace performance) are problematic for both individuals and organizations. They negatively impact the workplace in terms of productivity and effectiveness, and they negatively impact our well-being at work in terms of job satisfaction, performance, and physical and emotional health.

As you can imagine, this will also negatively impact innovation – the lifeblood of the tech industry.

The good news is that corporations are recognizing the adverse impact of unconscious bias and are doing something about it. I’ll share some of these strategies in my next post; I’d be interested to learn what others are doing to effect culture change in their environment as well.

This was part one of a series. The next article will appear on May 19, 2015.

Crypto-fascist lackeys of the military-industrial complex – The Illiac IV adventures, part II

Author: John Day (Follow on Twitter: @JeanJour)

(Continued from this post)

Let’s go back to the Illiac IV (the world’s first supercomputer) I was telling about in my previous blog. One time, the four of us leave Champaign for Philadelphia to do some work on the machine. The whole tone of the trip was set as we were getting off the Ozark flight to Chicago. The flight attendant said to me “Are you guys in a band!?” I replied, “No, we are crypto-fascist lackeys of the military-industrial complex”.  A stock phrase the radical fringe leveled at us.

Once in Chicago, we make our way to the connecting flight to Philadelphia. This trip was about a week after that first major hijacking where they blew up those planes in the Syrian dessert. TWA had started putting metal detectors at their gates. All this was way before there were metal detectors at the entrance to the concourses.
The four of us walk into the gate area and everyone is staring at us, giving us the hairy eyeball. We are told about the metal detectors. The problem is that we are carrying magnetic tape reels with our software in our backpacks. Hmmm, are these active or passive detectors we asked ourselves. I called the office.  No one knew. Okay.

So we hold back so as not to create a scene. As the last people are boarding, I walk up to the gate agent and say, “We can’t go through your metal detectors.” He replies, “You want to get on the plane, you gotta go through the metal detector.”
I say, “Look, we are carrying thousands of dollars of software on tape.  I don’t want to get to Philadelphia and find out I have nothing.” He thinks about it, says “Okay, put your bags down and we will search them. You guys go through individually and we will unplug the detector and you can get on.” I say “great!” and so we do. However, Kravitz, who is a bit of a burly guy and has a frizzy beard to the middle of his chest and frizzy long hair that comes pretty much out to the edge of his shoulders, takes off his army field jacket and gives it to the gate agent saying “you better search this, it will set off your metal detector”.

The gate agent gives Kravitz a weird look, but dutifully, starts going through the pockets pulling out: a spark plug, crescent wrench, another spark plug, pair of pliers… On the 3rd or 4th spark plug he looks at Kravitz. Kravitz says, “I ride a motorcycle, and like to think I can get myself started.”

You can tell this completes the gate agent’s image of us (and it isn’t flattering). He rolls his eyes, hands Kravitz his jacket and we bolt for the plane. I end up sitting next to a black activist on his way to a demonstration and we talk politics for the whole flight. Kravitz ends up sitting next to two grandmothers and spends the flight trying to explain to them that, no he isn’t a student at the University of Florida, he is a member of the staff!

I think we were asked four or five times on that trip if we were in a band and every time, I answered, “No, we are crypto-fascist lackeys of the military-industrial complex”!

Long haired bearded freaks – The Illiac IV adventures, part I

Author: John Day (Follow on Twitter: @JeanJour)

The first job I had was as a grad student at the University of Illinois, working on Illiac IV in 1970. For those of you unfamiliar with US geography, the University of Illinois has a student population of 35,000, located between the twin cities of Champaign-Urbana (200,000 population) about 300 kilometres south of Chicago on the Euclidean plains (not a typo). It is flat. Outside of the city, you can stand and see the horizon in all directions. On a 15’ topographic map, there is less than 2 meter variation in elevation over most of the map, and it is surveyed into 1 mile squares called sections. In the midst of some of the richest farm land in the world, the top soil is black and sticky, prairie and 3 meters thick!

John Day Blog 1 illustrati copyThe Illiac IV
Now that the scene is set, let’s go back to Illiac IV. This was the first supercomputer ever. It had a parallel processor containing 64 processors, and a control unit.  The project was funded by ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) and while the machine was designed at Illinois, the hardware was built by the Burroughs Corporation’s Defense Space and Special Systems Division near Philadelphia.

Our group at Illinois was developing the software for it: operating system, languages and compilers, and applications. Illiac IV was designed to be a “peripheral processor” to a B6700, which was currently being completed. In fact, we were using Serial #2 of the hardware.
For those you who never saw a B5500, or B6700, you missed a life changing experience. This machine was elegance personified. It taught us that a system did not have to be a jumble of hacks, but an elegant complete whole that just worked.  Perhaps a bit on that later.

Hippies, flower power, SD&RR!
I should note for our younger readers that this was a rather unusual time in the US and in Europe, especially at universities. Hippies, flower power, sex, drugs and rock n’ roll! Civil rights and the Vietnam war were hot.  Student demonstrations were common. In those days, you could tell software guys from hardware guys by looking at them. Hardware guys had crew cuts, pocket protectors, white shirts and ties, etc. Software guys were long haired usually bearded freaks in jeans, denim work shirts, and for us Dingo boots.

Also being the largest military contractor on campus, various radical factions were demonstrating against us. There was an attempted firebombing of our office, but it didn’t go off. That culminated later in the rally called by the attachment, which was a little odd, since our politics were for the most part in line with the student radicals. If anything, we had a better grasp of what was going on than they did, but that is another story.

2001, A Space Odyssey
One night we couldn’t work on the machine (hardware problems), so we decided to go to the movies.  The only reasonable movie playing in the area was 2001, A Space Odyssey. Movies played at theaters a lot longer back then.  We had all seen it, some probably more than once, but what the heck. If you remember, the last part of the movie has this extended “light show”, it was not unusual for some people to go see 2001 stoned. It was the time of Haight-Ashbury, the Jefferson Airplane and White Rabbit.

If you remember, HAL was built in Urbana Illinois.  So when that part came up in the movie we all applauded.  When the movie was over, the house lights came up. As we were leaving, we came across a row of freaks still sitting in their seats, who clearly *were* stoned. So we stopped to talk to them. The conversation went like this:

“You guys from around here?”
“No, we are from Illinois.”
“O, you are the guys who applauded.”
“Yea, that’s right?”
“What are you doing out here?”
“Building the world’s largest computer.”
“You mean like HAL??!!” (said with a real tone of “Wow!”)
“Kind of.”

They were pretty out of it so we said “so long” and left.

I figure the next day, they either thought they hallucinated the encounter or could never convince their friends that they *really HAD* met the guys who were building HAL!! at the movie last night.  You can just hear their friends say: “Yea, right. You guys were so stoned, you could have met Easter Bunny!”

To be continued… Part two will be published in two weeks!