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Unconscious Bias Is Happening Where You Least Expect It: At Your Workplace

Topics: Work Culture

Recently, PayScale released data that show the gap between men and women’s perceptions of equal opportunity at work. Based on 140,000 individual responses to the PayScale Salary Survey, the report showed that 75 percent of men say there’s equal opportunity for men and women in their workplace – but only 51 percent of women say the same. The perception gap is even worse at tech companies, with 80 percent of men, but only 44 percent of women, saying that women have equal opportunities at their employer.

see no evil

(Photo Credit: JD Hancock/Flickr)

“In psychology, we call this the Lake Wobegon effect, after the fictional town where ‘everyone is above average.’ It is logically impossible for it to be a pervasive problem that happens everywhere and yet for us all to deny that it happens around us,” says Matt Wallaert, behavioral scientist and founder of “But that is precisely what people do, because it is hard to confront the fact that we are part of a system and workplace that perpetuates inequity.”

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One Underlying Cause: Unconscious Bias

In PayScale’s data, most people, male and female, felt that their own workplaces were less unequal than others. Of course, as Wallaert points out, it’s impossible that everyone works for that one “less unfair” employer. Unconscious bias is a more insidious cause of gender inequity at work than overt prejudice, precisely because we’re not aware of having it.

At Google’s official blog, Google SVP of People Operations Laszlo Bock and Director of People Analytics Brian Welle, PhD, explain how unconscious bias rears its ugly head without our even noticing it:

“When YouTube launched their video upload app for iOS, between 5 and 10 percent of videos uploaded by users were upside-down. Were people shooting videos incorrectly? No. Our early design was the problem. It was designed for right-handed users, but phones are usually rotated 180 degrees when held in left hands. Without realizing it, we’d created an app that worked best for our almost exclusively right-handed developer team.”

So How Do You Conquer Unconscious Bias?

Bock and Welle say that education is the key to helping people identify and combat their own bias, and they’ve developed a workshop for employees to help Googlers do that. Google also monitors data on gender representation in everything from Google doodles to conferences, and uses a “bias busting checklist” as part of performance evaluations.

Steps like these are important for companies as part of a larger bid toward gender equality, as are pay transparency measures that help erase the gender pay gap between workers with the same job. Ultimately, however, until female employees can look up the ladder and see women at the top, they’re unlikely to see a future for themselves at their company.

At SXSW? This Sunday, Aubrey Bach, PayScale’s Senior Product Marketing Manager, will participate in a panel called “How to Diversify Tech and Hack Our Unconscious Bias.” The session will combine data and psychology to discuss the root causes of the lack of gender diversity in tech, invite the audience to examine the unconscious biases that drive this trend, and discuss practical ways that both women and men can be part of the solution. Presenters include Matt Wallaert, Behavioral Scientist and Founder of; Liz Morgan, Recruiting Lead, Diversity & Engineering Leadership, LinkedIn; and Lisa Lee, Senior Diversity Manager, Pandora.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you think your company pays men and women equally? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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