We all say we want more diversity and be more inclusive.  Those who succeed reap benefits everyone wants, including more innovative workplaces, more profit and products that can be scaled more easily.  In reality, though, it is hard to include those we see as “other” based on our biases.  Often without intending to, we exclude people who don’t hold the same opinion as us, or look the same as us, or even eat different food than us.  All based on deeply ingrained patterns of beliefs formed over the centuries and millenniums over the course of humanity’s evolution.  So how do we build bridges to overcome bias?

Is it even possible?

In a previous post, I touched on how easily we make bad judgments based on what seems good information.  In response to the tweet the topic of bias came up and how it is hardwired and something out of our control.  To quote: “…neuropsychologists see cognitive biases as being hard-wired into the structure of the brain, regardless of life experience, like optical illusions which work because that’s how your visual system is built.”

Is it possible to overcome bias?

This made me think, as I don’t believe anything is hardwired in our brains. Neuroplasticity proves that we can change our brains and if that is true, it is possible to change these deep-seated biases too.  It’s just that it’s really, really, really hard to change something so deeply ingrained and so old, mostly hidden away in the underworld of our subconscious.

But it’s possible.

When I look back at my own life and how my judgments based on my culture has changed over time, I can’t possibly consider it is like a terminal disease we are doomed to live with.  It’s a lens through which we see the world, but we can change the lens or take off the glasses.  For more on my perspective on how to do this, read The ego blindspot and how to find joy.

Growing up during apartheid in South Africa as a white person in a religious home, I should be one of the most biased people in the world.  And I was for very long.  I didn’t see myself as biased then, because I was doing what others in my culture was doing.  I was fitting in.  But just because everyone does it, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

The impact of bias

I only started seeing the impact of my bias and trying to fit in once I started delving into my personal shadows increasing my self-awareness.  When I started seeing the pain I am contributing to based on beliefs inherited from my ancestors, I couldn’t do it anymore.  I couldn’t pay someone minimum wage to clean my house while I live comfortably, continuing the culture of slavery.  Neither could I see myself as better than the homeless just because I had more money, while they had the freedom I so much desired.  I also couldn’t judge someone without an education or a high paying job as less successful than me, while they were often so much happier pursuing a craft they loved.

My bias towards other races and classes slowly started to change as I changed my brain.  Each time I looked at my shadows, I built a bridge to another demographic or culture.

Building bridges

Bridges are built with conversations.  It’s about trying to understand those who are different from you.

I vividly remember a conversation with a dear black friend talking about skin colour and culture.  In good faith and offering a token of peace, I said I don’t see his colour.  I see him as a person that is intelligent and kind.  He, however, slightly offended, passionately responded by saying “If you don’t see my skin colour, you don’t see me.”

“If you don’t see my skin colour, you don’t see me.”

His words came with conviction and pride.

At that moment I realized that all these years I have been wrong. It was not black people who felt inferior based on their skin colour as I was made to believe, it was the white people who felt inferior to the power of the collective black tribes in Africa.  Without realizing my bias, I projected my belief that white people were superior to him, seeing him as inferior when in fact he wasn’t.  It’s how I saw him, not who he was.

I didn’t do it consciously of course, but subconsciously I bought into the beliefs I inherited from my Afrikaner heritage.  I was too ashamed to admit it at first, but when I finally did, my perspective started changing, and with that, my interactions with other colours.  Then I started building bridges one person at a time.

Turning the tables

I recently had the tables turned on me to understand the other side of the equation better. Never consciously aware of it, I became aware of gender-based bias.

I started noticing that each time I suggest something the immediate and automatic response from the male recipient was a no, just for him to shortly after post the same advice with gratitude expressed vocally from a male equivalent.  My opinion was accused of being arrogant and confusing, while a similar opinion from a male was deemed as groundbreaking and valuable.

It made me question my value, and whether I should be sharing my wisdom at all when it is received with so much hostility. As a result, I decided not to share my opinion publicly without recognition or compensation anymore.  The impact of this small, maybe automatic response of harshness had a massive and lasting impact on me and several other people.

Integrating your shadows

These two experiences stayed with me for a long time as I pondered it.  It finally one day made sense.  You can’t ignore differences or look past issues to find mutual understanding.  And you have to integrate it as part of yourself.  You have to admit to the shameful experiences your ancestors and you participated in without blame. You have to see the pain a bias caused another.  Also you have to see how neither party intentionally tried to hurt each other.  They were merely trying to protect themselves while both were too scared to try and understand the other.

It’s not about not seeing skin colour, or age, or gender choices, or any other controversial bias we have; it’s about understanding.  And once you understand, it’s possible to forgive and live in harmony together.

Is it possible to change?

I strongly believe it is. It might not be easy, and it takes a lot of courage, but it is possible.

The solution came to me while chatting to several strangers from across the globe working on a software development we all are passionate about.

Hidden behind avatars and handles that don’t give any clues as to what the person’s real name is or where they come from, we were all equal.  I couldn’t discriminate based on my subconscious biases because there was no way to know whether it was true.  I had to go on the actual behaviours and the common goal we all shared to judge a person.

Two developers stood out above the rest. The one extremely talented and I enjoyed working with him (or her, see bias already kicked in assuming he is male).  The other felt like an obstacle impeding me from adding value.

It struck me that I was not being biased based on colour, race, gender, age or anything else.  I was judging these people based on how they treated other people, specifically, how they treated me.  The one was eager to include me as one of the team, the other created a wall between me and the developers and made me feel as if my contribution was not valued.

How can you include others?

To overcome bias and build bridges between people we need to find a way to include others.  Rather than focusing on how you are different, try to search for what you have in common.  What is your mutual goal?  What do you both want?

Stop waiting for other people to change. Be the brave one that takes the first step. Be the change you want to see in the world.  It’s in unity that we are strong, not in being different.

Every day, ask yourself one question: “How can you include others more today?”


Photo by Modestas Urbonas on Unsplash

With 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.