Saying Bye Bye to the Bias
I used to be one of those people. As a professional woman in the early 90’s, I minimized any “proof” that I had of a life outside of my professional job. I wore a wedding ring, but did not display any pictures of my spouse or kids in the office. Most people did not know I had any kids, let alone four of them. I lived a double life. I did not lie if someone asked, but I certainly did not advertise my personal life.
I did this partially due to advice from the women before me, and partly because I saw it backfire on a colleague, and even me. I had moved at least three times with the company, and I had been vying for a foreign assignment. The company for which I worked had been looking for a professional with my talent and background to move to London.
I had seen my male counterparts take advantage of similar opportunities. When I inquired, I was told that it was too expensive to move entire families. I was naïve at the time. I knew that my counterparts had families too, but that expense did not surface during their career conversations. I accepted the reasoning at the time, but to this day, I think about what could have been. I have no regrets. I think about it, however, when I see young professional women navigate the work place.
This is especially relevant for me lately, as I have been at a corporate Diversity & Inclusion training session, and we talked about bias. It sparked thoughts for me how bias has impacted me, and how my own bias has impacted others.
From the time Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of wisdom, it was decided that women would bare children. Men physically can’t have children; yet, when it comes to bias, this lack of skill among one group has more bias impacts on the gender that really can have children. That does not seem fair!
Yet, in the words of a speaker at one of my children’s recent graduation ceremonies, “Erase the word ‘fair’ from your vocabulary.” It was the first of ten wisdom tips the speaker shared, and it made me smile. He started with the most sobering and true lesson first – life isn’t always fair. For the high school graduates, it is probably a lesson yet to come; however, for us experienced people, known as parents, we have seen this unfold time after time.
If life is not fair, then how do we rectify and operationalize things like equal pay and gender equality, especially when we know there is disparity today. Fair and equitable are not the same things. Equal means the same, while fair is more about being acceptable or understandable. Granted, the speaker was not addressing pay equity, rather he was, I think, encouraging the graduates not to whine, as not everything in life is fair, and acknowledging that they will face situations where they will have to discern what is worth the fight and when to save energy for another day.
I have consistently preached to our kids that things happen and problems need to be solved, but playing the victim card is rarely productive. I am not suggesting giving up the fight, just figure out how you can address the problem from where you sit.
Many things in the workplace have changed for the good, as being a working parent these days, has become a discussion of work-life integration, as opposed to an either or scenario.
Some things have stayed the same, however, and when I am asked if I will move for my career, inevitably the interviewer, if he or she somehow knows I have a family, asks what my spouse will do. It is as if he wants to decide for me what is good for my family and my marriage. Is it considered whining if I have lived the scenario?
I once worked with a man that I really admired as a leader. He had interviewed a candidate, and he knew she had the skills, but he struggled with her integrity because he knew from a colleague that she was pregnant, but she did not mention it during the interview. I was a little dumfounded at this really smart man’s reaction, and then I explained the law that technically, pregnancy is considered disability leave at the company, and quite frankly he did not have the right to ask her or hold it against her. I continued to explain that the company had disability leave and not maternity leave.
That night I shared the story with my husband that this really smart superior leader that I admired had a bias. It bothered me. He was still a great boss for many other reasons – character, clear direction, accountability, encouragement, and empowerment. This one bias, however, could have impacted a really smart colleague’s career; and he was one of the good guys who made an honest mistake of unconscious incompetence – he honestly did not know that maternity leave, at least at the time, was classified as disability.
Fast forward to today. As I sat through part of the training, I heard leaders and colleagues exchange remarks about unconscious bias – gender, race, color of skin, experience level and more. It is something we all do, AND as I get older I work even harder to minimize it.
Later in my career, I started including family pictures and even talked about my kids, IF people ask about the pictures in my office. Being a mom is part of who I am, and it enables me to bring a diverse perspective to the table, especially since I have some Millennials in my bunch. I might not know how or why they think a certain way, but I am confident they are paving their own path with a lot of good intentions.