As a female engineer in a predominately white, male-dominated industry, I’ve had an incredible whirlwind career – from starting as a structural engineer, to managing a marketing department, to leading a transportation department and then a business line, to now being the global lead of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I). But it wasn’t always easy. I could list dozens of examples of bias I’ve experienced – some implicit and some downright explicit – that have frustrated and discouraged me, like being asked if I was the wife of one of my co-workers at an industry event, sharing ideas that I helped generate but were ultimately credited to one of my male colleagues, or being told I probably got that promotion to a leadership role because more women were needed.
This was nothing new to me at that time. I was one of only three women in my graduating class, so I was used to seeing things through my own unique lens and doing things a little differently. What I didn’t understand was that people make assumptions, or even hurtful comments, without necessarily realizing that their unconscious biases are the reason for their actions and words. But, can unconscious bias be overcome so we learn to understand and value our differences and think before we act? Do I have my own unconscious biases that may affect others? The answer to both questions is yes!
Decades of research show our unconscious biases are formed early in our lives and occur automatically as the brain makes quick judgements based on past experiences and background. We are wired according to what we see, hear and experience as children when we develop a strong sense of what is “normal” and “not normal.” Our brains unconsciously process millions of data and decision points each day but can only consciously process about 40 things at a time. So, to effortlessly sort through all the stimuli around us, our brains seek patterns and create mental shortcuts that make decision-making easier. While these shortcuts can serve us well in certain situations – like our instinct to flee if we are in danger – many of these shortcuts create unintended consequences.
Just before I took on my ED&I role last year, I attended a seminar where I was asked to take an Implicit Association Test (IAT), part of Harvard University’s ongoing Project Implicit. I chose to take the gender-career test and was shocked at the results. I have a strong unconscious bias that associates females with family and males with careers. How could this be? Looking back, there might be a few clues – TV shows and movies that reinforced gender stereotypes, teachers who all looked like me and doctors who didn’t, and dolls and toys that matched my demographic. It’s not surprising that in the deepest recesses of my brain, I unconsciously make those associations, even now.
But the beauty of being human is that we can overcome our unconscious biases if we want to. Taking time to challenge the way we typically make decisions, how we choose the people we associate with, and how we perceive and empathize with others who aren’t like us is important to assessing how we show up. Understanding our own biases and non-inclusive behaviours is the first step in creating an environment in which we can find common ground, make others feel safe to express their points of view, and ultimately achieve more diversity of thought, innovation and outcomes.
About the author
Janie is vice president of AECOM Global Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and is based in Maryland.