The Face Staring Back at Me: Learning to Confront Unconscious Bias

[This week’s blog was written by Flo Follero-Pugh]

I loved to draw when I was little. My sister and I would spend hours sketching and colouring pictures, proudly keeping our favourites so we could admire our work whenever we wanted. As children of Filipino immigrants, we grew up grateful for luxuries like pencil crayons, crayons, and blank papers to create to our hearts’ content.

However, when we made pictures of ourselves and wanted to colour our self-portraits, there wasn’t a specific pencil crayon that matched our skin tone. We had “camel brown” and “chestnut brown,” the closest approximations to us when held to the backs of our hands.  But the tantalizing “natural flesh,” or “flesh” pencil crayons weren’t close to us.  Next to the black of our hair, our portraits looked plain weird if we used the “flesh” pencil crayons – strangers staring up at us from the paper. So that meant acquiescing, using the colours that suggested (in the scheme of the universe to two little kids) you were measured closer to an animal or an object, than a human being.

Unconscious Bias

Now, fast forward to more recent times.

In 2020, when kids all over the planet were trapped in lockdown and drawing on anything they could get their hands on, Crayola released a new line of products that, honestly, brought some joy to my tired, pandemic heart.  Called “Colors of the World” (US spelling), you could now get packs of pencil crayons, crayons, markers, and paints representing 40 different skin tones around the globe.  My inner artist jumped for joy!

Why does this matter to you?  It’s not like you’re going to put out art supplies in the staffroom, or start your next meeting with art-related icebreakers. (Or are you? Because that sounds like it could be fun.) Is this a click-through ad for Crayola? No. But it is an opportunity to look at how any organization can choose to grow, change, and choose to be part of a larger conversation about diversity and inclusion.

Somewhere in this specific company, a person spoke up about the need for their products to now reflect the diversity of the consumers purchasing them.  It would have been easy to say: “We don’t need to change; everything is fine. People buy our products anyways.”  But at some point, someone needed to ask: “What else can we do to keep on progressing? How might unconscious bias be stopping us from finding an opportunity to grow?”

Unconscious bias is something that is natural to all of us. These are the mental shortcuts we take as we juggle tens of thousands of decisions every day. When you quickly like an interview candidate who is similar to you, or when you automatically discount the words of the employee or coworker whose views are vastly different from your own, that’s your unconscious bias coming into play.

In the case of Crayola, it would have been easy for them to fall prey to one form of unconscious bias called “conformity bias” – sticking to information that confirmed their current beliefs and ignoring information to the contrary.  They could have played it safe by maintaining the status quo (i.e., “People already buy our products; we don’t need to design new colours”). Instead, they invested time, money, and resources in a long-term process of developing a new product that helps kids around the world to feel seen in both the tools they are using and the art they are creating.

Regardless of the product or service your company offers, your challenge is to be willing to examine how unconscious bias can affect your daily work.  When hiring someone new, do your recruiting processes block certain groups of people from having the chance to join your team?  When deliberating promotions and choice assignments, is everyone in the company fairly and equitably considered?  Is your marketing inclusive of your diverse customer base, the issues they are concerned about, and their accessibility needs?

By learning ways to acknowledge your unconscious bias, you can choose to move in a new direction. It’s about keeping yourself open to taking a chance on somebody who may not fit the mold of those who’ve been hired before or bringing in someone with a completely new perspective on your business or industry. That new employee’s face staring back at you on Zoom may look vastly different from yours, but I’ll bet their inner child will be doing a little dance at being included in the bigger picture.