How to Confront Bias without Alienating People

It’s about starting from a place of shared values, and understanding that bias is a human condition, rather than a character flaw.

Confronting bias is a tricky thing, On the other hand, by ignoring the problematic nature of a statement (or glossing over it), we are letting her unconscious bias go unchecked. And harmless statements and comments pile up to create the many forms of structural discrimination that we see today.

In any situation, confronting bias requires you to start from a place “where most people have the right intentions” but they have not been taught how to approach things inclusively.

This is not surprising, but like many other women, I often struggle with calling out bias when I’m on the receiving end of it. The delicate dance between making my point and doing it in a way that doesn’t offend or put the other person on the defensive is extremely difficult to execute. And then I also have issues with the idea that I had to be the one who thought about it in the first place. After all, it shouldn’t be the job of minorities and marginalized communities to educate others about their blind spots, especially when they face enough additional emotional labour in their day-to-day lives.

 

CONFRONTING BIAS AT WORK

In most instances, people make biased statements at an unconscious level. When that happens in the workplace, it is important to understand, first and foremost, the kind of culture that you’re dealing with. Is it the kind of workplace where people are comfortable calling out each other’s biases in a respectful way? 

Calling out a co-worker and a manager can carry different risks, but you can employ the same technique. The most important thing is to evaluate the nature of your relationship with that person, and what you hope your ultimate goal to be. Say you are in a meeting and someone mentions that a particular woman is aggressive, and you feel like that person isn’t aware that their comments are rooted in gender stereotypes. The appropriate way to respond to that is “with specificity.” Ask them, “What do you think makes her aggressive? What did she say specifically that made you say that?” This will force the person who made the comment to give specific examples and think beyond stereotypes.

It can be hard to do when you’re “managing up,” but good managers understand that emotional and psychological safety are two key components to productivity in the workplace. The key is to describe the bias without attacking the person and with the mind-set that bias is a human condition, rather than a personal flaw. Asking specific questions can easily unpack their comments without connecting it to their beliefs or bias.

Ultimately, talking about bias and discrimination requires a commitment from both parties to provide a safe space for conversation. Both parties need to adopt the “failing fast” mindset, because, in these conversations, mistakes are inevitable. To move forward, we need to learn to have to “reset conversations so that people aren’t worried about being perceived as biased but are instead focused on growing where the challenges might be.”

It’s the kind of mind-set and skill-building that we need to do more of, as opposed to, ‘Oh my gosh, my manager said something so sexist, I’ll just ignore it.’ That’s not helpful.