When I first started working as a consultant in Asia, I was often frustrated with very innocent questions from coworkers and clients. I cannot count the number of times I had to explain that, “No, I am not the secretary, I am indeed the presenter and team leader,” when I would show up for important board meetings. After a long workday, coworkers would joke, “Why don’t you just get married, then you can just chill at home.” Although I felt my work was appreciated, I spent a lot of effort explaining myself rather than just doing the work due to these unconscious biases.
Naturally, I became highly supportive for the need for diversity-related initiatives in the company. We had monthly women’s initiative dinners to discuss trends and set up new recruiting strategies to ensure that we had female talent. We also started ‘champion’ programs that included men in the conversation. Although it was helpful to have a support network, I still had lingering doubts about the effectiveness of these programs. I enjoyed talking about the issues a lot and raising awareness, but still, it was only talking—devising concrete action plans and making impactful changes continue to be a challenge.
Now that I am at MIT Sloan, I have learned some of the different challenges other classmates have faced and how that has impacted their career choices. One classmate with an engineering background shared, “I was an engineering TA in one of the top programs in undergrad, but even now I am not pursuing a career in engineering…I decided to transition to a management role where an engineering background was appreciated instead of trying to stay in the culture where I constantly needed to be the minority.”
An undergrad studying computer science was also disappointed by her experience when she was doing her internship search. “Overall, I think no one doubts that I am capable of being an engineer, but it is still a very male dominated sector…When I got an offer for a very competitive engineering internship, even my grandmother joked that maybe it’s because they need to fill the women quotas.”
As of last year, most tech companies such as Google still have a 70/30 male to female ratio. Google and Facebook have started unconscious bias trainings for employees, emphasizing the importance of addressing unconscious biases for the company’s success. I have not personally participated in these events, but it is hard to imagine that a few workshops and classes can change behavior. Nevertheless, I do agree that it is the right direction, and also acknowledge the existence of a new segment of companies that are pushing the mission even further and building business models revolving around unconscious biases. In the past, I mostly thought about unconscious biases as a social issue that needed to be managed. However, after learning about the $50 million venture capitalists have poured into the sector, I no longer see unconscious biases purely as an issue to address, but a great opportunity to push boundaries and build innovative business models.
Several new business models have emerged and I look forward to seeing how they progress. Joulez, a local Cambridge company founded by a Sloan alumnae, for example, is currently prototyping products that focus on inspiring young girls to engage in STEM to combat the condition that women are supposed to be only good at certain ‘softer subjects.’ When describing her inspiration for the startup, she stated, “When I was deciding what to do next in my career, all of my mentors said I needed to do something I was passionate about…I realized that I want to empower girls to be confident with whatever they want to learn – in particular STEM – and to push for more women in these areas in the future.”
On the other hand, companies such as Textio and Blendoor have also built practical business models targeting companies. Blendoor is an app that facilitates diversity recruiting for tech companies by circumventing unconscious biases in screening and evaluation processes. The company is also still in the early stages, but with so many companies now realizing the challenge of overcoming unconscious biases, I definitely see the opportunity.
Although I do not expect the impact of these companies to be apparent immediately, I do see the value in moving forward in this direction. The greatest challenge is that unconscious bias does not only happen in the work place, but that it is deeply imbedded in our education, social constructs, and our daily interactions. We need to actively manage it from many different angles, beyond the human resources department of technology giants.
Stephanie Liu is an MBA candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She is an active member of SWIM’s Breaking The Mold marketing team, whose conference on February 5, 2016 will showcase the research behind unconscious biases. Prior to Sloan she was a consultant in Asia working with multinational companies entering emerging markets, which introduced her to many diversity-related issues.