Serena recently told me how she encountered ‘unconscious bias’ long before it became a term in diversity and inclusion circles – and, she can relate to the recent rise in anti-Asian racism. In fact, this third-generation, Asian-American woman recalls incidents of racist name-calling when she was just three years old.
While these verbal assaults were upsetting, she was equally troubled by the more subtle instances of unconscious bias and micro-aggressions she faced throughout her career.
For example, imagine if you were a senior producer asked to fetch coffee because someone assumes you’re an intern? Or, consider how Serena felt when her managers decided among themselves that, ‘Oh, she won’t be aggressive enough, so we can’t give her this tough assignment.’ And, Serena adds that the most common question she heard over the years was, ‘So where are you from?’
Although these were disheartening moments for a journalist who wanted to drive positive change, she learned to respond with small, swift actions. “I would cut them off and say, ‘Well I’m Chinese-American but I was born and raised in California,” explains Serena, who today works with Catalyst to help individuals and employers take practical actions in the workplace.
And Serena finds it helpful that at least today ‘unconscious bias’ has a name and definition: “It is an association or attitude based on race, gender or aspects of one’s background, that are implicit, and operate beyond our control or awareness. Often, we don’t even know we have these biases, but they inform our perception of individuals or groups, and they influence how we act towards them.”
She adds that unconscious bias can have a detrimental impact on a woman’s career. “A classic example is managers who ‘assume’ that a woman with children won’t want a new assignment and they should ‘save her from that struggle’,” says Serena. “Often this bias seems small and benign, but it actually ‘Others’ you and means you are treated differently or unequally, and you miss out on opportunities to advance your career.”
That said, Serena points out that she doesn’t blame anyone for an unconscious bias: “If you have a brain, you have a bias. It doesn’t make us bad, it’s just something we need to be very aware of.”