This week I’ve been reflecting a lot on unconscious bias – specifically what it’s like to be a woman working at a technology company.
AppNexus has been very active speaking out against gender bias and helping create awareness internally and externally. I’m very proud to be part of a company that takes such a clear stance on the subject. However, I’m embarrassed to admit, until recently I never really understood what unconscious bias was.
This week, I think I finally put the pieces together.
As a product leader at one of the fastest growing tech companies in New York, one of my biggest responsibilities is finding the right people to join the team. I often find myself meeting, networking with, and interviewing very senior folks from the tech community. All of this comes quite naturally to me and I really enjoy meeting and learning from new people.
However, every once in a while – maybe one out of ten times – something weird happens:
When I walk into the interview room for the first time to meet a candidate they pause for a second. There is a slight look of confusion on their face and their first words are, “You are…?”
Here’s the thing: I look young. Occasionally, candidates expect someone who looks older to come interview them. It’s an awkward moment. Whenever it happens I know how to deal with it – I slowly explain my role and spend a little bit more time credentializing at the start of the interview. Since it happens fairly rarely, it’s more of an annoyance than anything else. The moment passes and we’re on with the interview. But the fact remains, about one out of every ten times a candidate will judge me based on how I look rather than what I have to say. I don’t think this is something that the candidates do on purpose and I don’t think these candidates are bad people. My appearance just slightly violates their expectations and they unconsciously behave differently than if I were someone who looked older.
This week I found myself in that same position. I walked into the interview room, the candidate paused, and I prepared to shift into my playbook of explaining myself and credentializing. Except this time was different. This time I paused too. All of the talks, articles, and presentations that I’ve been seeing about unconscious bias coalesced in this single moment.
I basically melted as the realization came rushing in. Holy crap – this is what it feels like to be on the receiving end of unconscious bias. Except I only have to suffer this awkward moment once in a blue moon, while many people have to deal with it every day – or worse, every meeting.
Perhaps it’s been the New York City weather lately, but the analogy that flashed into my mind was that of walking down the sidewalk. The unconscious bias I experience is like stepping in a puddle every once in a while. I imagine there are some environments where being a woman in tech is like perpetually having to walk in three inches of water.