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Battling Bias in Berlin

Cassandra Melvin (L) and Danit Gal (R) present the Rockchain network at a first gathering. Their motto is “Connect for Impact.” Image copyright: Ruthe Zuntz

A Rockchain Panel Explores Ways to Beat Unconscious Bias

Seated at the back of a packed loft office of Diffferent in Berlin on a recent fall evening, I started to more deeply consider the notion of ‘unconscious bias’. It’s a term I’ve heard before but had not grappled with sufficiently. Also sometimes referred to as implicit bias, it loosely means forming an opinion about a group of people without being aware that you are forming that opinion.

Addressing unconscious bias has big implications for diversity across many settings, including business.

A UCSF site on diversity in education, supported by the NIH, defines it more concretely —

“Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness.”

Apparently, these can more easily emerge when one is stressed or under time pressure. So basically, daily life in most office settings, especially fast-paced startups. Where I am curious about the emergence of such biases is in the world of hiring — and in particular, hiring in tech.

For nearly 4 years, I’ve worked in the Berlin startup scene in various content and communication roles. As a native English speaker who is continually refining my German skills, I ruminate about the power of words and language. I often get an opportunity to craft job descriptions and occasionally participate in hiring rounds. I take that responsibility seriously, so I jumped on a perfect chance to attend a special first event dedicated to the topic of unconscious bias. This event was hosted by Rockchain, a new organization in Berlin co-created by Cassandra Melvin and Danit Gal.

Connect for Impact

Rockchain’s motto is ‘Connect for Impact.’ It’s an exclusive, professional network connecting women who are influential in their fields — to share their success, inspire one another, and feel empowered to lead as role models and champions of diversity. The organizers bring extensive professional experience in tech products, management and strategic consulting. They invite unique combinations of knowledgeable speakers to address specific topics.

During this event focused on unconscious bias, I got a preview at the kind of impactful events Rockchain will create. They are highly interpersonal, and loaded with good tips that people can take directly into the workforce — whether they have a job already or are planning their next leap.

Leitha Matz, COO of Zuper, offers a ton of takeaways on actionable ways to decrease unconscious bias. Image copyright: Ruthe Zuntz.

That evening I had the good fortune to hear from Leitha Matz, COO of Zuper. Zuper is a mobile app financial coach in Austria and Germany that is fast-growing in popularity. She’s been hiring for 20 years, and her surprising lessons resonated well.

The insights below that Leitha provided are intended to undo as much as possible, unconscious bias —


1) Don’t trust your gut.

In other words, we all carry around unconscious bias, so we have to seriously question our first impressions of candidates. She recommends “assessing your first impressions last”. Reflect back on how you first responded to the candidate and question if unconscious bias may have factored into your reaction.

2) Repoire is not an indicator of performance.

Just because you get along with someone does not mean they are the right person for the job. The better question is do they have the right skill sets to do the work? Make sure to loop in other people from the office and prepare them accordingly with the right set of questions and criteria to offer informed input.

3) Adjust job descriptions to be more neutral in language, or female-coded.

Leitha quoted a study that categorized words according to gender, and said switching to neutral or female-type words can still attract top candidates. For example, typically male-coded words include: active, advantage, conscious, decision-driven. Compare that to more female-coded language or degendered terms including: agree, commit, cooperative, loyal, support or understand.

4) Delay identity of characteristics.

This is a bit tricky here in Germany, where typical CVs come with photos and birthdates of candidates. It would be more optimal to make hiring decisions based purely on skills appropriate to the job. Ideally, we could strip out candidate data that might trigger unconscious bias – things as basic as names (which can reveal ethnic origin), date of birth (which can lead to ageism), and photo (which can distract on a superficial level.) There is software that can help to delay the identification of physical characteristics, though.

Tests & Tools

Leitha referred to a study at McKinsey, who have been studying diversity at the workplace from many years. The study says —

Teams with women perform 15% better, and teams with ethnic diversity can perform 35% better on average.

So how do we achieve this higher performance?

She recommends two things:

  1. Take the Harvard Implicit Association Test and be prepared to dislike your results, and
  2. Use this tool from Textio to alter your written language.

Data, Body Language, and a Fair Chance

Three more engaging speakers added unique contributions to the evening —

Elena Poughia is the Managing Director of Dataconomy Media and Founder of the upcoming Data Natives conference. She had a humorous presentation about voice assistants and explainable AI.

She encouraged questioning information modeling and always going back to the data, to see what new sources can be explored. Finally, she closed with the idea that “a machine is as smart as its user.”

Elena Poughia breaks down data’s role in bias during her engaging presentation. Photo by Elisheva Marcus.

“A machine is as smart as its user”

We also heard from Nicole Günther of GemeinsamWeiter about the importance of body language during interviews and negotiations, and how this can lead to different ways we think about ourselves and others.

To conclude, we got a live example from Natalya Nepomnyashcha who is Founder and Managing Director of a pioneering platform called Netzwerk Chancen. She spoke on how to create diversity by giving people from underprivileged backgrounds a fairer footing in the business world.

I hope sharing these tips and insights from an evening with Rockchain causes people to reflect on how they form decisions and opinions, and consider new ways to hire.

View of the Oberbaumbrücker Bridge from the Different HQ in Berlin. Photo by Elisheva Marcus.

Thank you for reading.

Have any tips on battling bias at your workplace? Feel free to leave your comments below!