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Outsmarting Your Unconscious Bias – a Q&A with Valerie Alexander

As a part of an ongoing quest to drive more diversity (and awareness thereof) in the workplace, the EMEA F5 Connects Women Employee Inclusion Group (EIG) recently hosted an educational session on unconscious bias.

Inequality in the workplace has never been more pronounced, particularly in the tech sector, which is why we decided to interview our speaker on the day—the entrepreneur, author and TED alumna, Valerie Alexander—and share her journey and insights with our wider community.

How did your career evolve in such a way that you became an expert on unconscious bias?

I started as an IPO lawyer in Silicon Valley, and I was taking companies public during the first Internet boom. That opened up a lot of opportunities, so I quickly went from law to venture capital consulting and investment banking. I then became an executive at an Internet company for a while.

When my mom got sick with a brain tumour (she is still with us, by the way), I got out of Silicon Valley. I sold my house, my car and moved to take care of my mother for a year. 

During that time, the Silicon Valley bubble burst, and I decided what I really wanted to do with my life was to make movies. So, I moved to Los Angeles and started writing screenplays.

My very first pitch was in Joel Schumacher’s living room for an adaptation of a book he was going to direct. He gave me my start in Hollywood but unfortunately, the movie never got made. My second writing job was as adaptation of a play for Catherine Zeta-Jones and that movie didn’t get made either. After that, I created a TV series for Ice Cube and, again, it never got produced. That’s the interesting thing about screenwriting—you can have a very successful, lucrative career without things ever getting made, which for me was kind of frustrating.

Then the Writers Guild (the union representing screenwriters), went on strike. There was a large group of writers that did not recover, and I was one of them. So, I started to write a book called Happiness as a Second Language. I followed that with a book called Success as a Second Language. I went on to trademark the phrase “…as a Second Language” for self-help and personal growth, and I started a publishing company, which now publishes other authors’ books in the series.

How did your popular TED talk come about?

While working on my first book, I was asked to speak on how women can succeed in Hollywood. At the time, I was intensively studying brain science, and my book about happiness was essentially all about cognitive training, so I went deep into the research and never let up.

In 2016, I started a tech company that built communication platforms to amplify happiness in relationships and was presenting in a lot of forums. That was when the Pasadena, California TEDx organization approached me. However, instead of just adapting my standard talk about the differences between male and female brains and how that affects who gets rewarded in the workplace, I decided to incorporate learnings from my time as a tech CEO. What brain activity might be behind the fact that I was being treated so differently as a female CEO from more “typical” tech CEOs? The TED talk got a lot of attention, and suddenly there were huge numbers of requests for me to continue speaking about unconscious bias and to expand the discussion around it.

Describe how our brains react we are unconsciously biased?

The human brain is designed for the survival of our species. It has one function: to keep you alive.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that is most responsible for doing that, as it triggers the “fight or flight” response. Our brain creates a lot of shortcuts by figuring out what is, or is not, a threat. And our perception of what constitutes a threat is based on an enormous number of factors, including how we were raised, who we’ve had encounters with (or not), who lives in our neighbourhoods, media images, and choice of news outlets.

We will always instinctively react to what we think is a “threat”. Fight or flight is the most extreme, as this is when your body floods with adrenaline. But one step below that is when you perceive something that is not “normal” to you. It is just different from what you expect. Your amygdala will trigger the hypothalamus to fire up your hypothalamic pituitary axis, which engages your adrenal glands to release cortisol into the bloodstream. That cortisol is your stress hormone; it makes the heart beat a little faster and it makes you sweat a little. Often, we don’t even realise when our amygdala has been engaged. We just feel a little bit more stressed out and less relaxed, calm and comfortable.

For example, you might be conducting interviews for a job, and the only people that have ever held that role historically are white and male. If the person walking through the door isn’t that, you might be delighted about the change. But because that moment is unexpected, your brain still has to make an adjustment. This need to adjust is your unconscious bias.

Seven million years of evolution have created a brain that responds to threats in a certain way. You can’t change that fact, so what you have to do is to change what is expected. You have to change the assumption of who that person walking through the door is going to be. When we can change those “norms” and the perception of what is “normal”, we can change the world.

How prevalent is unconscious bias in the tech industry?

Unconscious bias is a big problem in this space. Often in tech, if somebody walks in for a job and they look like the expected and anticipated norm for that role, they are presumed to have the competence and skills required. The interview is more likely to be about, “do you want to work here” or “do we get along” or “what kind of ideas do you have”?

If somebody doesn’t look like that, the frequently recurring priority is to determine if they can do the job. Now, they are being interrogated about their competence instead of it being presumed. That is a much harder place to start from. Women and people of colour are constantly having to prove their competence, their skills, their intelligence, and their value. It is exhausting and there are no free passes.

If you expect somebody to fail because they are different from everyone who previously held the role, any eventual mistake becomes a confirmation that “this person can’t do the job.” However, if you expect somebody to succeed, and they are failing, you give them more resources. You give them more support to succeed.

Tech involves—and needs—a lot of failure! To quote Thomas Edison: “I never failed, I just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work”. That’s what tech requires and, unfortunately, a white male is still much more likely to get their 10,000 tries.

This is where unconscious bias stems from. It comes from deep-rooted expectations. It comes from the free passes. It comes from a confirmation bias. Women and people of colour are simply much more heavily scrutinised. Unfortunately, this happens everywhere, not just in tech.

What are the fundamentals for an organisation looking to acknowledge and tackle unconscious bias in a substantive way?

Eliminating unconscious bias is like learning a new language. You don’t take one class and you’re done! You don’t read one book and it’s over. You spend years studying and practising, adjusting, and training yourself, as well as accepting there will be failures and setbacks.

So, what are some of the key things companies need to do?

A big one is to create a set of metrics for what you want in your workforce and what your values are. Concurrently, it’s imperative to train the people that are conducting interviews. The vast majority of people have never been trained on how to conduct an effective interview. I’m not just talking about labour laws either, but in terms of what the company values and how to discover whether the candidate has what the company values.

It is also important to not focus all your attention on hiring and all your resources on recruitment. It is an element of a much bigger challenge. Now that you’ve hired, you need to figure out how to retain a diverse workforce. You need to figure out how to reward and promote a diverse workforce.

This all comes down to our metrics. Look at the outcome you want. Figure out from there the behaviour you need to get to that outcome. You may have to admit that the way you’ve measured people’s behaviour in the past has not valued the contribution of a diverse workforce.

The value of diversity is not having different skin colours or body parts or religions; the value of diversity is having different thought processes. That’s why companies with diverse management are more successful and profitable. They have people that think differently in the room. If you aren’t allowing people who look and think differently to thrive, to be listened to and followed or rewarded, you are making a big mistake. Ultimately, you will lose new talent, diverse perspectives, and the ability to innovate. You will stagnate as a business.

I recently held a workshop for CEOs, and one attendee indicated that they’d been trying to achieve more diverse board of directors but were failing badly. The reason was the metric they were using: candidates had to have been a CEO of a public company. That metric alone excluded so many potentially brilliant and value-adding candidates. Match the metrics to get you required skills you need in non-exclusionary manner. The CEO did just that, and the impact of removing this specific historical bias has been transformative.

What about what we can do as individuals on a day-to-day basis?

It is vital to help amplify the voices of your diverse workers. Amplification in this instance doesn’t mean repeating what they said, it means you direct the conversation back to them. If a woman suggests something, and everybody talks over her, be the person that speaks up and help make their voice and opinion heard.

Another thing that happens, is that there is less support from subordinates if a team leader is a woman or person of colour. If you’re in position to change that situation from the top, do so. If you’re a subordinate, make sure that you are not passively letting it get worse.

I get so sick of hearing people say, “women are the worst bosses, they are impossible to work with”. No, they are not. They aren’t behaving any differently from men that may be bad bosses or than the men that are stressed out. It is just held against them. Don’t be the person that perpetuates this sort of thought-pattern. We give men free passes that we don’t give women or people of colour. Become really aware of that.

There is also less assistance from clients, who are historically more predisposed to giving men respect and acknowledging their professional needs (i.e. a response or clarification to a technical question). As a business, you need to pay attention to that too. If a female employee says, “I asked a client question and they haven’t got back to me yet”, and you know that this wouldn’t have happened to a man in in a similar situation, have the courage to say something to the client. The best way to eliminate unconscious bias is to hang a lantern on it. Be the person that says: “You’re treating this employee differently. Why is that?”

The long-term success of your company depends on having the best talent and giving everyone a chance to thrive. Make that your top priority.

Additional perspective from F5: