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

Championing Diversity

It is a critical responsibility of any leader to act as a Diversity Champion. There is no need to have a degree in Human Resources nor do you need to have conducted research on the topic; you just need to be committed to the cause – to serve as a voice and a driver of diversity.

Of course studies have shown and common sense tells us that we are most successful when we bring varied minds and experiences to the table. But more importantly it is the right thing to do and the more leaders in an organization who are actively and meaningfully involved with increasing diversity, the more diverse the organization will become. This is because it’s not just about setting quotas, which any single leader could do, but about recognizing the value of different perspectives and seizing it.

As noted in Lessons from the Leading Edge of Gender Diversity from the McKinsey Quarterly, “Culture and values are at the core: Gender-diversity programs aren’t enough. While they can provide an initial jolt, all too often enthusiasm wanes and old habits resurface. Values last if they are lived every day by the leadership on down. If gender diversity fits with that value set, almost all the people in an organization will want to bring more of themselves to work every day.”

So let this be a call for you to join me, for you to be a Diversity Champion for your organization. There are many ways you can do this, but here are a few to get you started:

  • If you have a voice, use it! As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote in their recent NY Times article on gender diversity, “Instead of quieting down, men can use their voices to draw attention to women’s contributions.” But it’s not just about men or about women, we can all bring awareness to the amazing contributions of people who don’t look or sound or think like us. This is about recognizing success that is based on merit and achievement, not superficial factors.
  • Sponsor a junior employee: Not only can you serve as role models and mentors, but you can also support an employee’s career and help them to achieve their goals. As a sponsor, you act as their advocate and help them gain access to opportunities.
  • Be self aware: We all have biases that we need to recognize and transform, not deny. For example: Do you favor a certain view point? Are you likely to promote certain types of people? Look at the team around you, what is their makeup? It’s not easy to recognize our own biases, but it’s important. This article provides some tips for identifying and reducing bias.

Maybe some of you wish we could work in a world where there was no need for Diversity Champions, but I like to think of it as an integral piece of a well balanced organization. No matter what, we should always be committed to bringing in new perspectives and new ways of working. However, being a Diversity Champion shouldn’t just be a temporary role or a position for a few, instead we should all see ourselves champions of diversity every day.