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Unconscious Bias, What’s the Solution?

In the last few years, there’s been a lot of discussion around diversity and women in tech. Tracy started it with her demand for companies to disclose diversity statistics in 2013. Just 2 weeks ago women all over the world marched to raise awareness for equal opportunities and equal rights.

For me, women in tech has always been a challenging topic. I believe in meritocracies. I believe that my work should speak for itself. I came to Silicon Valley 12 years ago an idealist, believing that the best work would bring the best people to the top. But more and more I’m recognizing that just doing great work isn’t enough. For the most part, I think that the men of Silicon Valley are trying to increase diversity. It’s just that, as human beings, we are more likely to trust people who are like us. In an industry where men are the majority, trust in women requires a higher bar. Bias seeps in subtly, judgments are made based on the way someone looks, the way they carry themselves, their life experiences, and even on what they do outside of work.

We can’t help it, as human beings we are biased.

Critical career junctures, such as recruiting, hiring, promotions are driven by human beings and their biases. How do we evaluate someone’s work at a management/leadership level? How do we decide if someone deserves an opportunity at a role that may be a stretch for them? How do managers decide who to really invest in?

So… because even today, women fill less than 20% of technical roles, we are the constantly on the receiving end of unconscious bias. I’m heartened by the discussions we are having and the support we are lending each other. But I’m worried about some of the things I’m seeing from friends and colleagues.

Only going to women’s events

I love hanging out with strong and smart women in almost any context, but I’m starting to see women who are only involved in events for women. These events, whether conferences, meet-ups, or even angel investing are generally great. They validate that we’re not alone, and give us a chance to talk about some of the shared experiences that we don’t bring up in our everyday environment. But I think women’s events can be very dangerous. Change isn’t comfortable. For the rest of the valley to hire more women, to recognize their unintentional biases, and to change them, we need to talk to and interact with more men in tech.

At present, men still make the majority of decisions on recruiting, hiring and promotions that are so critical in a career. The places where our voices are needed are also, right now, the most unfriendly places. Sometimes organizations throw women’s events and feel a false sense of progress, while decision-making remains the same.

Opting out of “sexist” organizations

A friend of mine was interviewing at VC firms. When I asked her if she wanted an intro to a well-known VC firm. The answer was “I could never, they’re so sexist!” She told me a story about a general partner at the VC that was fairly damning. I understood her personal choice to work only with firms that shared her values. But at this point, a lot of the top incubators, angels, and VCs have questionable histories around their investments in women and how they value diversity. So who loses when women avoid those organizations? I think we do… I don’t think we want to assume that every partner or decision maker in those organizations is sexist. I think we lose a chance to change someone’s perspective when we don’t ask for a meeting. And ultimately those organizations have deep pockets and great connections, so I think we put ourselves at a disadvantage when we opt out.

Playing the victim

Finally, this is probably the most unpopular thing I’ll say. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t think it helps to play the victim or blame the system. It is harder to get hired, to become an executive, and to get funding as a woman. But if that is the first thing we think about every time someone says no, then how do we get better? Also how does that get us closer to the outcomes we’re hoping for?

I’ve been consulting at several startups with female founders. They are amazing. While the startups range from marketplaces to social networks to content networks, I’ve noticed all these women CEOs are completely focused on outcome. Not able to raise money from traditional VCs, no problem. Let’s talk to this retail company about a strategic investment. Have to fill in for the CTO because they were lured away by Airbnb even though they have no technical background, no problem. They’ll figure it out. I’ve been really inspired working with these women and I’m trying to channel more of that energy into my life and work. These founders’ successes will ultimately do more for changing people’s perception than the complaints of one thousand (legitimate) victims.

What does it mean to win in diversity?

To me, winning is not having our clubhouse or territory, it’s integrating deeply into the fabric of Silicon Valley. It’s for women in tech to be the norm. So the point of this post is to say to my fellow women in tech, let’s support each other, but let’s not get too comfortable or safe. Let’s not be satisfied with our exclusive events and funds. And let’s give the men a chance and an opportunity to learn and change their unconscious biases.

As always feedback is welcome. Also thank you Reshma for being a great editor.

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