You don’t know what you don’t know

Take a look at the four people pictured below. What do you think are their jobs?

Ingrid_newshot-220x243 Brian+Cornell+Target+CEO+Brian+Cornell+Rings+BgL1u09Lfmgl Ben Huh 340bbca

Now, I’ll tell you one of the above people is a CEO, who do you think?

This was a bit of a trick question, because I never said only one of them is a CEO, the answer is, they all are.  When you were first imagining what jobs they might have, did you think CEO? Did it change based on what they wore or looked like? When you knew one could be a CEO, did you think all of them looked like they could be or did you think it must be the woman in the suit or the white male?

The reality is that we all have unconscious biases. We all make assumptions based on what we think we know, what our past experiences have taught us, or things we have been conditioned to think based on the society we grew up in. No one is free of bias. This is not the problem. The problem is being unaware of these biases and letting them dictate our actions in negative ways.

When we think of bias, we think it must be something obvious that anyone could spot. However, bias can be subtle and it can have unintended consequences. Google recounted their own experiences with more subtle biases: “When YouTube launched their video upload app for iOS, between 5 and 10 percent of videos uploaded by users were upside-down. Were people shooting videos incorrectly? No. Our early design was the problem. It was designed for right-handed users, but phones are usually rotated 180 degrees when held in left hands. Without realizing it, we’d created an app that worked best for our almost exclusively right-handed developer team.”

This story points out that biases aren’t just about race, gender, and other big differentiators; they can be about what someone wears, how they talk, what school they went to, if they’re introverted or overweight or even left handed. And that’s what can make it so hard to identify.

So why am I writing about this? As we think of leadership, mentoring and professional development, awareness of biases needs to be on the list.  Corporations, as they look to increase their diversity of their organization, must think about educating on unconscious biases as well.  Individuals can also take initiative and become aware of our own biases. We can all make efforts to minimize unconscious biases by evaluating things with a diverse perspective – whether hiring, promotions, or other opportunities. Individual biases may seem insignificant, but when we multiply those small biases over the course of an entire organization and population, the results are significant.

What’s been your experience with unconscious bias? Share in the comments.


  1. Quick Left CEO, Ingrid Alongi
  2. Target CEO, Brian Cornell
  3. Cheezburger, Inc. CEO, Ben Huh
  4. Corporate Counsel Women of Color CEO, Laurie Robinson

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