Unconscious Bias

2020-06-27

Despite all my maniacal record-keeping, I'm struggling to look up when this actually happened. The best I can guess is that it was sometime in early 2018, but the experience really stuck with me. At the time, I was the product manager at Amazon for the team sometimes called "Alexa Core Services". Basically, we built the systems that other teams depended on in order to deliver various experiences and devices to our developer and enduser customers.

Another Alexa team needed to use one of our services, and they scheduled a meeting with our team to ascertain whether and how they could use it. On their side were a few male software engineers. On our side were me and my two lead engineers, both women.

The discussion was going fine, and while I'm not a software engineer by title, I have some deep technical expertise, so I'm sure I projected a certain amount of confidence on technical questions. But at a certain point, Gladys, the senior engineer in the room, went into a level of detail about the code that exceeded my knowledge. She was addressing the engineers from the other team, explaining why something would or wouldn't work in some fashion.

One of the engineers had a follow up question...

He.

Turned.

To.

Me.

I saw exactly what was going on here, and it was as though it happened in slow motion. He posed his question to me as though Gladys hadn't just been speaking to him.

Now, in retrospect, I think that how I reacted was a bit too pointed. Some people might say that it wasn't condemnatory enough, that I should have been more explicit. But in my view, what I did still amounted to shaming this male engineer, and I'm increasingly of the view that that is an utterly ineffective way of changing hearts and minds, of combating unconscious and conscious bias.

I looked right at him, cocked my head, and said, sarcastically, "I don't know; maybe we should ask the engineers.". I don't even remember whether I actually did know the answer to the question; that wasn't the point.

I don't remember what happened in the rest of the meeting. It ended up being a non-issue. I don't know if what I said affected him in any significant or lasting way. But when I talked to Liz and Gladys afterward, expressing my shock and dismay, their reaction was basically to shrug and say that this is normal. Normal!? I know that my experience is atypical, but throughout my childhood, in family and in school, I never absorbed any messages that women were less technical than men (if anything, the opposite). I wasn't even exposed to that idea until college. But that's something to explore in a different post...it's an interesting and unusual manifestation of a sort of privilege that I (and the women I interact with) enjoy.

I was horrified, and it suddenly really hit me, the exhaustion and frustration and resignation associated with a long career of continuously trying to prove oneself and get the respect that one has already earned many times over.

I think my empathetic response was intensified by my own experience, being a product manager and thereby often having my technical opinions dismissed, discounted, and devalued because I happen to have the "wrong" title in many discussions. I don't think we need to compare the severity, intensity, effects, causes, etc of Liz's and Gladys's experiences of sexism with my experiences of title-ism (?); in the end, the point is that these all feel frustrating and unjust in similar ways.

Emphatically, I don't think that this is some Amazon-specific phenomenon. Or even a tech-specific phenomenon. If anything, I think that the technology industry is ahead of many others in terms of judging people rationally and being aware of unconscious bias. And Amazon in particular has Leadership Principles that encourage the very best in us. But, of course, even the best explicit philosophy cannot guarantee immunity from errors or irrationality.

I don't know what the solution is here. All I can say is that I'm sure that this male engineer didn't mean anything by what he did. I don't even think he realized he was doing it. I don't think he's a bad person. I don't even necessarily think that the subconscious integrative process that resulted in his bias was functioning incorrectly. None of that is to excuse, justify, or defend the engineer or what he did. Everything I observed and everything about that context made it really clear to me that this wasn't conscious bias. And the nature of the bias and the motives of the person manifesting it make a big difference in what the most effective way is to address it.

Somehow, we need to find a way to be mindful of our subconsciously integrated value judgments and make sure that we're acting in accordance with our explicit values. While it's tempting to lash out in anger and frustration, it's counterproductive to moralize and condemn and shame people when they have no ill motives in manifesting unconscious bias.