We are all biased

If you think that you are special and not biased, you’re not. We are all biased in some way. Before we talk about bias, let’s talk about inference and prejudice.

Why does prejudice exist?

When we are children, everything is new. We don’t have the experience to decide whether something is good or bad, so we don’t assume anything and look at everything from a fresh perspective. That’s why kids ask “why” all the time, and our answers shape their reasoning abilities later on.

As we grow older, we accumulate experience about the world, based on our own observations and based on what people tell us. This helps us to make decisions more quickly. This is generally a good thing, because without some amount of inference, we’d need way too much time to decide anything. For example, we usually assume that an applicant with only 3 months of practical experience will not be as productive as someone with 20 years. We can also assume that someone who makes too many grammar mistakes on a resume is not fluent in English.

How can inference be bad?

Here is an example. We tend to consider young people as having more energy and associate levels of energy with productivity. I can therefore assume that an older applicant will not be as productive. However, with more experience, it takes less effort to accomplish something. Again, that’s another assumption and I’d really have to speak with the applicant to decide.

Now let’s try another example. Say I noticed that there are fewer women who create software than men, and the women who do often work with CSS (visual part) rather than PHP (logical part). Although this is what I generally observed throughout my career, using that information to make a quicker decision can be bad. I might assume that a female applicant for CSS is probably good at what she does while a female applicant for PHP is probably not so good, while thinking the reverse for male applicants. We don’t really think this way because we’re not sexist… or are we?

I found out about my gender bias

I have been organizing conferences for web programmers since 2006. This means that I was partially responsible for going through hundreds of talk proposals and picking speakers. I never thought that I could be biased towards my own gender. But I was and I didn’t know it. Bias is subconscious.

I discovered it by starting to look more closely into my decision process. My process was that I would research a person’s attitude, their speaking experience and style as well as their skills relating to the topic, to see whether they actually know what they’re talking about.

This is where I discovered an uncomfortable truth: I often assumed that men who submitted on some topics knew what they were talking about and spent less time researching that part as opposed to women who submitted on the same topics. Why would I assume that women might not be knowledgeable about PHP and why would I assume that men might not be knowledgeable about CSS? This is especially strange since I am myself a PHP programmer.

Whatever anecdotal evidence led me to believe those general principles, in the end it really didn’t matter. What mattered is that I started to be more conscious about this bias, which led me to research speakers of all genders equally on all topics. While revisiting older speaker lineups, I noticed that this had an impact. There is now a better distribution of gender across these topics. There will always be other biases, but at least now I know that they exist and that they can be addressed.

Conclusion

If even a woman can have a negative bias towards women, then nobody is truly safe. That doesn’t make us bad people. Denying that we might be biased doesn’t help, because we are most definitely biased in some way. It’s how we survive.

Put your ego aside and start observing your own actions more closely. I guarantee that you will discover something that can be improved. Addressing bias is merely bringing it from the subconsciousness into our consciousness and the rest is easy. You don’t have to admit anything to anyone: just try to be a better person tomorrow than you are today and the world will be a better place.

2 thoughts on “We are all biased

  1. No, we are not. We can choose to be biased or not. Assuming skills based on gender is one of the most stupid things an employer can do. Correction. The most stupid. Men and women are equal. There are good women programmers. There are bad women programmers. There are good men programmers. There are bad men programmers. Just because you are of a certain gender (which you cannot choose) doesn’t make you automatically awesome at something.

    • Bias is by definition subconscious. This is a different thing from discrimination. I recommend that you read up on bias, if you’re interested in better understanding the concept.

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