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Three Tough Lessons On Bias From The Google Memo

Some of the worst biases aren’t unconscious at all, one expert points out. They’re simply un-discussed.

Three Tough Lessons On Bias From The Google Memo
[Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images]

This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.

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Yesterday evening Google reportedly fired the employee who authored the by-now infamous “manifesto” that surfaced over the weekend criticizing the company’s diversity efforts. His firing isn’t likely to put an end to the fully justified outrage it’s whipped up, though. Most of the ideas its author argues are categorically untrue, based on pseudoscience, and flat-out offensive, but the uncomfortable fact is that variations on his perspective are probably more prevalent than most of us would have liked to believe prior to last weekend.

So along with being angry, I’d like to challenge the diversity/inclusion and greater tech communities to draw a few crucial lessons about how bias continues to operate in the workplace, and the work that’s clearly still left to be done in order to counter it.


Related: 5 Debunked Gender Myths In That Google Anti-Diversity Rant


Lesson 1: Making Bias Conscious Isn’t Enough

“Unconscious bias” (or “implicit bias”) has become a major buzzword over the past few years, used to explain everything from problematic work environments to the lack of representation of women and people of color in tech. And while that’s a good place to start, the reality is that many of the biases people have are not unconscious at all, they’re simply un-discussed.

Think about it logically for a second: If we truly weren’t aware that we have biases based on race, gender, and socio-economic status, then people wouldn’t laugh at Chris Rock’s stand-up because they wouldn’t get what he’s talking about; Cecily Strong’s “one-dimensional female character from a male-driven comedy” wouldn’t be a reoccurring character on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update; and Aziz Ansari’s bit about racial slurs wouldn’t be met with roaring laughter. Many people are at least somewhat conscious they have biases–but they also know they’re not “supposed” to have biases. So they sweep them under the rug and don’t talk about them openly–especially not in a work environment.

Distinguishing between unconscious and un-discussed is important because it means that the answer to undermining bias is not simply making biases conscious. While unconscious bias trainings are a great start, they aren’t the catch-all inclusion solution. If we want to really make an impact, we must help people challenge and change their biases, including those they are privately aware of but won’t vocalize until somebody like the memo writer decides to break the silence.

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Related: These Millennials Took Harvard’s Bias Test–Here’s What They Learned


Lesson 2: Many People Believe Their Biases Are Based In Fact

While most people know biases aren’t a great thing to have, deep down many people believe their biases reflect reality. So if we want people to be less biased, we have to dig into these issues more deeply and regularly. I’d take an educated guess that there are a good number of people who agree to some degree with the (scientifically disproven) points made in the memo about the “innate, biological differences between men and women.” I can make this assumption because the trainings I run to undermine gender bias consistently uncover it; the survey I give before each session typically show that around half of the participants believe—at least slightly—that men and women are inherently different psychologically.

While it’s framed more offensively in the memo, the long-running narrative that “men are from Mars” and “women are from Venus” is a tired cultural trope that gets communicated to us in a variety of both subtle and obvious ways, sometimes from seemingly reputable sources. But from a scientific standpoint the concept is wholly inaccurate. And when you confront people with the wealth of evidence that challenges this way of thinking, many change their point of view; generally upwards of 90% of people leave my training no longer believing that men and women are inherently different psychologically.

If we want people to be less biased, we must address biases head-on with information and research that discredits our faulty cultural assumptions. It takes time, but it can be done–with gender, race and ethnicity, and more.


Related: This Is What Personality Tests From Apple, Miscrosoft, Facebook, Google, And Uber Employees Reveal About Gender Differences


Lesson 3: (White) Men Need To Feel Included, Too

As a therapist, my read on the author of this memo is that he feels excluded, threatened, left behind, and is yearning for more support. Research tells us he is likely one of many white men who feel this way as a result of diversity and inclusion initiatives. And the reality is that if we’re trying to build more inclusive workplaces, and those workplaces are predominantly white and male, then we have to get white men on board with diversity and inclusion. We need their cooperation in this–and that will unavoidably mean reckoning with subtle biases and outright prejudices alike.

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Striving to build more equal workplaces means asking white men to give up power and privilege. We are asking them to help disrupt a system that they benefit from, whether or not they can see or care to acknowledge the ways in which they do so. How to get people to give up power is the million-dollar question, but I believe it starts with offering them something equally enticing.

Traditional norms of masculinity come along with a great deal of power and privilege. But adherence to these norms is also associated with health issues, social isolation, and loneliness. Helping men challenge and examine the biases and stereotypes that directly concern them, too, is one way to bring them in on conversations about biases and stereotypes that concern others.

It may also make them feel less defensive and threatened, and make clear that when it comes to bias, we all have skin in the game. We know–from an abundance of research–that diverse and inclusive companies do better, and are better places to work. The more people we can get on board with that reality, the more realistic it is to think that we can create workplaces that are truly diverse and inclusive.


Amber Madison is a licensed therapist, author, gender expert, and award-winning lecturer. She is the founder of Peoplism, a comprehensive program to undermine bias and foster inclusion, and Gender ReBrand, a training initiative for stopping gender bias.