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What does it mean to break the bias?

Updated: May 3, 2023

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is breaking the bias.

Read more about IWD and the theme here.

break the bias

Breaking bias is about noticing and calling out biased behaviors and practices in an effort to create inclusive and equitable spaces where everyone has equal opportunity to thrive.

It can seem straight-forward enough to just say let’s call out bias when we encounter it. When you see something, say something. But it's more nuanced than that.

Being able to recognize bias is one thing. And while I'm sure you know and have experienced many common biases and what they can look and sound like, it's helpful to be able to name them and understand some of the research behind them so that you don't fall into the traps and the negative outcomes that result when they go unchecked.

But the key is in calling it out. Breaking the bias is not about ‘if’ you should call out biased behavior, it is about how and when. It can require real courage to call out bias. It can feel uncomfortable or scary, especially if there is a risk, real or perceived, that you’ll be punished, penalized, or burdened in some way for doing it. Building an inclusive culture doesn’t work when inappropriate behavior is tolerated. Seeing yourself as an ambassador of inclusion and equity can be an empowering way to move through intimidating feelings and step into action.

Knowing when and how to call out bias effectively is tough because its highly subjective and contextual. Given this, in my experience it is important to anchor efforts to break bias in compassion. Compassion for ourselves and for others who are on their own journeys.

Because bias runs deep. Our unconscious minds make associations and assumptions that affect our behavior and decision making in real time, often without our conscious awareness of it.

I remember the first time I took Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) on Gender-Career. At that point, I’d already been doing women’s leadership work for a few years. As someone who had been facilitating this work, I felt like I knew something about it. So when the results showed that I had a “slight automatic association of male with career and female with family” I was shocked. I was embarrassed. The strong reaction was telling and helped me to see something deeper too– that I had been harboring an expectation that I wouldn’t or shouldn’t have this kind of bias at all. I was holding a stigma about it, even when I consciously knew that didn’t make sense and wasn’t productive. It was confronting.

It was humbling to take responsibility for my own bias.

First of all it helped me to see my own journey differently. I could see how hard I tried in my early career to prove myself professionally. I could better understand the root of the fear I carried about not being a good mom or a good wife. I was able to acknowledge all the energy and effort I put into stepping into the parts of myself that didn’t align with stereotypes of who I unconsciously believed ‘a woman’ was supposed to be (Em the adventurer and creator).

Importantly here too, it helped me to have compassion for others who are on their own journeys, almost all of whom have spent far less time than I have thinking about and working on this. It is a journey, a process of unlearning, learning and relearning that can require courageous introspection. And patience. And resilience. And nurturing. And persistence....

I’d like to share the most common gender biases that come up in the work I do coaching women and helping executives to lead inclusively in some upcoming posts. I'll also dive into some real cases of calling out bias - times where it worked smoothly, and times where it didn't.

I'll be engaging a lot this month on the topic, and I'm considering to run a few workshops around it. If this is something you're interested in, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter if you haven't already so that you can be the first to access opportunities around this, as well as get these anecdotes, and the important learnings, right to your inbox.

If you've got a specific situation you've faced that you'd like a fresh perspective on, or if this is bringing up something for you, welcome to email me.

Even I do this work professionally, I've still struggled at times, be it in a work context, at home or in the communities I'm part of to call out bias effectively when I see it.

But that's just it. To break the bias, you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. And getting comfortable being uncomfortable is one of the requirements in The Unconventional Truth Manifesto to step fully into our roles as creators, crafters and shapers of our own worlds, of our collective world, of our envisioned future.

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