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Home » Kristen Pressner: Are You Biased? I am at TEDxBasel (Transcript)

Kristen Pressner: Are You Biased? I am at TEDxBasel (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of international HR leader Kristen Pressner’s TEDx Talk: Are You Biased? I am at TEDxBasel conference. This event took place on May 28, 2016 at Basel, Basel-Stadt (de).

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Are you biased_ I am by Kristen Pressner at TEDxBasel


OK, so let me just get this out there. I have a bias against women leaders.

No one can be more surprised about this than me. I’m a woman leader. And on top, I even work in human resources, which means it’s kind of my job to be unbiased. In fact, I passionately encourage women to step into leadership. My poor kids would definitely tell you I never stop talking about it.

But in spite of my strong belief that women make great leaders, I’ve realized I don’t always act like it. Not long ago, within the same week, two members of my team asked me to take a look at their compensation. My first reaction to the man’s request was something like, “Yeah, I’ll look into it”. My first reaction to the woman’s request was something like, “I’m pretty sure you’re good”.

Day or so later, I’m sitting at my desk, hard at work, and I somehow connected what up until then I’d seen as two separate events. I had two very different reactions to basically the same request, and I thought, “Huh, what’s up with that? Might I be biased and not even know it?” But I know what you’re thinking.

This is 2016, it’s not a topic. Women leaders are everywhere. Maybe you, like me, have personally hired or promoted lots of women leaders. But then I thought, with all this talk of unconscious bias, might something be going on that I’m not even aware of? You know, if it’s unconscious and all.

For those of you who might not already have been inundated with this in the corporate world, it’s a simple concept, and it’s backed up by neuroscience. Our brain has to handle way too much information, so in order to manage it all, our brain takes the liberty of looking for patterns and filtering for us what it sees as the most important bits, like autopilot. Our brains take shortcuts.

Without these shortcuts, we’d have to sit and really think through way too much information. Imagine if every single time you had to think through everything from how to open doors to how to shake hands to how to sing “Happy Birthday”.

But brain shortcuts do have a downside. Because they see patterns that are based on the cumulative effect of everything you’ve been exposed to throughout your life, which means the whole thing is happening also in the back of our minds, which means we’re not even aware that it’s happening. This can cause us to behave in ways that are not true to who we want to be, or how we feel we are, and we might not even know it.

Unconscious bias sounds kind of clinical, but I looked it up, and other words for unconscious are: comatose, paralyzed, or senseless. And other words for bias are bigotry, intolerance, and unfairness.

OK. So that would mean we’re not just unconsciously biased, we’re actually senseless, intolerant bigots. So, that’s not something I want to be, consciously or unconsciously. And here’s the scary part: most of us think we can outsmart it. We believe it when we say things like, “I don’t see race,” or “I just hired the best person”. It just so happened that at the time of the two pay requests, I was doing research on unconscious bias.

And the research said these are our expectations of men. We expect them to be assertive, and strong, and driven. And these are our expectations of women. We expect women to be helpful, and sensitive, and supportive. If we were to make it a little bit tighter, we see men as taking charge, and women as taking care. No, it’s not because every single one of us is a misogynist. It’s simply because men taking charge and women taking care is what we’ve mostly been exposed to throughout our lives. And our brains will do the rest, unconsciously redirecting us into those patterns that it recognizes.

Still feeling like this bias couldn’t possibly belong to me, one of the words jumped out at me. Wait a minute. Do I see the man as a provider, and so I looked at his pay request more seriously? And do I not see the woman as a provider, and so I’ve somehow dismissed her request? In that moment, I had to realize I do. I see men as providers, but not women, which is really interesting because I’m the sole financial provider for my family of six. My husband is a stay-at-home father for our four children. I take charge and he takes care.

I’m the last person I can imagine who could ever have a bias against women leaders, and yet I had to realize I have a bias against women leaders. I have a bias against myself. And if you’re thinking, “Wow, bad on her”! Unfortunately, I’m not the only one with this bias. The research shows that we all have a bias against women leaders. We just don’t know it.

I had both a man and a woman ask me for a raise at the same time, so I was confronted with my different reactions, real time. And I could notice it when I was accidentally treating people differently. Luckily, that happened, and I realized in time, but how many times have I not caught myself? How many times have you not caught yourself?

So what’s the antidote to being a senseless, intolerant bigot toward women leaders or anyone else? It’s a big stretch to imagine that we’ll always have the opportunity to crosscheck our reactions with two different people in real life. But I’ve realized we don’t need to. We can do this comparison mentally, and it’s just as eye opening.

Just mentally flip whoever you’re dealing with for someone else to test yourself. Like here I made a slight change to this slide. I flipped the photos. Does anything on this slide feel weird? Flip it to test it.

If it feels weird, you might want to check yourself. The more I tried it, the more I saw the value. In fact, there’s this Twitter account that just flips the gender of things we commonly say, and suddenly, they become funny. “Being called a Policewoman doesn’t bother me at all, because I know it covers both women and men”. Andrew, Policewoman, age 40.

Or let’s take my hometown baseball team of the Cleveland Indians. Flip it to test it. How would you feel to be up in the stands cheering for the Cleveland Caucasians?

Now, maybe you’re thinking, “This doesn’t happen to me.” And maybe you’re right. Maybe you are a superhuman person who manages to intercept those brain shortcuts at exactly the right moment to ensure you’re behaving bias-free and consistently with your values, and beliefs, and all of your actions. It could very well be.

But what have you got to lose to double-check yourself? If we all started to flip it to test it, we might just be surprised at how often we would choose to behave differently. Because what if you’re missing an opportunity to see the world differently?

Thank you.


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