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Fighting unconscious bias as a woman in tech

  • Posted on August 21, 2019
  • Estimated reading time 3 minutes
unconscious-bias-women-tech

In 1976, before I was born, my mum worked as a computer programmer for a global tech company, and she was interviewed for their employee magazine. In the article, it says that 10 percent of the employees and only 1.6 percent of the managers of that company are women, but that the company was looking to improve this through an equal opportunity program. The article also reassures men that women will not get an unfair advantage over men in the company. Even though a lot has changed since 1976, a remarkable part of the article is still relevant today.

I was very lucky because my mum has always been a great role model. In high school, when it was time to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, there were three things on my list: jetfighter pilot, lighting engineer in theater productions and software developer. I don't think it occurred to me that this was an unusual list for a girl, and if it did, I certainly wasn't put off by it. I was, however, one of only two girls in our physics class. And when I went to study electrotechnical engineering – with a specialization in computer science – I was the only woman amidst 75 men. I still didn't mind.

When I graduated in 2002, I had my own company and was building web applications. I did the technical work and a male colleague drove our sales. Our company of two had a perfect 50/50 gender split. We traveled quite a bit, and we weren't always treated as equals. Arriving at a hotel in Geneva one day, the receptionist told my colleague that his wife could wait until the rooms were ready while he attended the meeting. An uncomfortable silence followed when he told her, "That's not my wife, that's my boss!"

While this is a funny anecdote, it's also hard to continuously fight against prejudice and expectations. In meetings, people would usually just address my colleague and assume I was there to take notes. He would have to explicitly tell potential customers that I would answer any technical questions that they might have – a good example of why allies are important to allow things to change and occasionally provide some emotional support and motivation to keep going against the current.

Today, the comments are usually not that explicit, but there are still plenty of preconceived notions about men and women in the workplace. Ideas that are put forward by men are more likely to receive a positive response. Sometimes, men repeat an idea that a woman has already suggested earlier, only to receive excessive praise for it.

These unconscious biases exist for both men and women – our brains prefer patterns, and the longstanding pattern is that men are leaders. It will take effort to snap our brains out of this automatic mode of thinking. We need to be aware of our unconscious biases and make sure that we review women fairly. They might look and act differently from what we are used to seeing, and it's exactly this difference that is going to help our teams be more successful.

Tracey Hill

Great article and one I can completely relate to, in particular to being the "wife" - my observation is that there is still a large unconscious bias that females are the organisers/minute takers/etc, we all have a role to play to help to change this perception.

September 9, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Thank you, Tracey! It's remarkable, isn't it? I agree that we all need to continue to be aware of the fact that we're setting a standard or helping to confirm the bias. Even if it's hard or uncomfortable sometimes.

September 10, 2019

Charles Dallimore

Thank you for sharing your story. You are an inspiration and role model to all women, your story an example of why allies are so important to facilitate change, and a reminder to check our unconscious biases. 

September 6, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Thank you for your support, Charles!! 

September 10, 2019

Anne Stanton Twitter Orange Icon@crmlady

Thank you for sharing. It is amazing how limiting continual year over year bias can be to people. I am so glad that there are people like you who share their stories. Keep sharing the strength, the perspectives and the empowered soul. I have been in the tech industry for 33 years and my Mom was in the industry long before me. (She went back to school and achieved a Doctorate in Statistics when she was in her 50s and was also an inspiration)

September 4, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Thanks Anne, both you and your mum sound like strong and inspirational women!

September 10, 2019

Joyce Chan

Thank you, Mirjam for sharing your stories. I can certainly relate to your experiences. You are right absolutely right, women needs to be review fairly. I have been in a number of work situations whereby opportunities were not given to women, though they are more capable and performing well. It is just unbelievable! Your article is an encouragement to me and it is good to know that we have a community in Avanade to support each other.

September 3, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Thank you, Joyce! We do have a strong community at Avanade. Please keep doing great work, you are awesome!!

September 10, 2019

Junee Singh

Thanks for the inspirational article Mirjiam! I am a female software engineer myself and have always felt the need to work extra hard to prove myself as smart, if not smarter, than the rest of my male colleagues (at University as well as after). Although, even in this modern day and age, I don't think many people are aware or conscious of the bias! I can totally relate to everything you wrote and am going to take quite a few pointers :)

September 3, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Hi Junee,
Thank you for your response and support!
We won't stop fighting the bias!

September 10, 2019

Sylvia De Ryck

I’m a 35 year old woman, I was called « little girl » in a meeting today... 

September 2, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Wow, I don't know how I would have responded to that. It's very likely I would have been stunned and come up with a suitable reply on the way home...
Keep going strong!!

September 10, 2019

Camille Orr

Mirjam; first love your name. Next agree that our "unconscious bias" for either gender; are very learned behavior and it will continue to take time to make them less.  An in your story that the repeating of an actionable idea by a woman is not receptive by our male counterparts when vocalized by a woman, is very real and very frustrating. To para-phase Carol - keep calling out and vocalizing "hey that was what I said"!

August 28, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Thank you, Camille! That's a compliment I don't get often! We'll continue to remind everyone ;-)

August 30, 2019

Deirdre McIntosh

Love this article...thank for writing....still so much gender bias....

August 28, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Thank you, Deirdre!!

August 30, 2019

marie-claire latour

Thxs Miriam for shining the spotlight on this topic - as we must again again. As you correctly point out, it will take constant effort to reframe; retrain the way we see things and patterns and norms developed over time. We need everyone to step up here :) Thxs again. 

August 28, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Thank you, Marie-Claire! 

August 30, 2019

Carol Gobby

Miriam, spot on....this still happens today and it surprises me when in a meeting I will make a suggestion which has no reaction, only for my idea to be repeated immediately after I say it by a male colleague - and it is suddenly well received........ I speak up and say.....I just said that!

August 28, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Thank you, Carol! Keep speaking up as it does create awareness, even if it's frustrating. Eventually, either current leaders will learn, or there will be new leaders who do notice!

August 30, 2019

Celinna Yan

Thank you Mirjam for sharing your story to which I can also personally related. Gender bias does exist and it’s not just in the tech world. For example, “detailed orientated” could be a strength for a male colleague but potentially turned into a weakness for a female colleague by being judged as losing the full picture. Organizing the meetings, taking the key notes and chasing people for status of their action items naturally become a female participant’s responsibilities; but none of these are normally considered as achievements during annual review. These put female workers in an unfavorable position while promotions are being considered. My next question is: how can we do a better job to fight with these unconscious biases for us and the next generations? Looking forward to hearing more advice from you.

August 28, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Thank you, Celinna! That's very recognizable! I also often tend to jump up to do the supporting activities. Sometimes I almost get offended if someone else does it. I think we change things by continuing to try. Just don't pick up the supporting tasks and ask one of your male colleagues to do it. Men are not going to change it for us if we don't say anything, because they aren't aware that it's happening. And we should of course keep being awesome! ;-)

August 30, 2019

Renee Myers

Thank you for sharing this article Mirjam.  It's good to keep the conversation going that unconscious bias is a real thing and I have a feeling your words are relatable to quite a few folks of both genders.

August 27, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Thank you, Renee!! I love the conversations that it's generating.

August 30, 2019

Artie Roggeband Twitter Orange Icon@aroggeband

Mirjam, in my in the freshmen class of Electrical Engineering in Delft, some years before you I guess, there were 5 woman in 300 students so your 1 in 75 is sadly enough worse or barely any better.

August 26, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Hi Artie, I agree, progress in numbers is probably even slower than progress in culture and attitude. We need a critical mass to help with this and to achieve that I think we need more visible role models for young girls (among other things). We'll keep trying!

August 30, 2019

Najia Tarhouchi

What a great example you had! It is beautiful to see how a mother paves the way for the next generation. In a visible way, so that others can get used to the idea of a "different looking colleague" (while being reassured that women will not get an unfair advantage over men... ouch!). And the invisible, yet most important, way: the hearts and minds of people your mother worked with as well as the ones close to her. Your mind was already programmed to stay true to yourself. If that is not one of the greatest gifts a parent can give while you pave your way for the Next Gen...

August 24, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Thank you, Najia! I do feel that we are slowly making progress. And we are all paving the way for the next generation(s)!

August 30, 2019

Padmini Jyotishmati

This is so true. In so many projects, it feels like as women we have to work extra hard to prove ourselves!

August 23, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@mirjamvanolst

Hi Padmini, Thank you! Indeed, you are right. I do think we are making progress even if it is slow. Keep going strong!

August 30, 2019

Thomas Hoglund

Mirjam - great article that reminds us all that we still need to be mindful of our unconscious preconceptions.  

August 23, 2019

Mirjam van Olst Twitter Orange Icon@MirjamvanOlst

Thank you, Tom!!

August 30, 2019

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