Rise Above the Hate-Filled Banter: Realize, Recognize, and Respond to Bias in Our Systems and Ourselves

In recent months, our country has seen a surge in violent tragedies related to long-standing systems of racial and other social biases. While our focus at NCWIT is typically on bias in the tech world, we believe that similar systemic biases related to race, sexual orientation, gender expression, class, ability, and other societal differences underlie the horrific events that have taken place nationwide over the past several months. And, we believe that it is important for us to recognize the powerful effect these tragedies have on our workplaces, our classrooms, and our everyday interactions – often making groups who are already marginalized feel even more isolated and less safe, both psychologically and physically.  

At NCWIT, we believe that the time to work together to acknowledge and address these intersecting and overlapping systems of bias grows even more urgent. This means asking tough questions, having informed conversations, and taking research-based actions for change. To that end, we below identify a few actions that all of us can take in the hopes of bolstering a constructive perspective for addressing the challenge before us all – one that rises above the hate-filled bantering often seen in the popular media and in online forums.

  1. REALIZE that unconscious (and sometimes conscious) bias exists in our society, our systems, and ourselves (ncwit.org/are-you-unconsciously-biased). We have all inherited patterns of thought, constructed systems, and biased world views that have extended across generations, are often unacknowledged, and serve to disadvantage people who are viewed as “different” or “other.” In order to change these biases, we must work to make them visible and evident. We suggest that now is a particularly important time to reflect on assumptions and biases we may have yet to examine – and to listen with a genuine spirit of inquiry to the stories and experiences of those different from ourselves.
  2. RECOGNIZE how unconscious bias manifests differently in different situations. Whether it is the underrepresentation of women in tech (ncwit.org/thefacts) or the overrepresentation of black men in prison, similar systemic biases and inequities are at work. And the list goes on to also include nationality, religion, sexual orientation, class, ability, and more. We must recognize the different ways that these intersecting biases serve to disadvantage entire groups of people in our country - especially those who fall into multiple marginalized categories. 
  3. RESPOND by confronting bias when we see it (or hear it). It is our shared responsibility to not only recognize and understand unconscious bias, but to interrupt it in our society, our systems, and ourselves (ncwit.org/criticallistening). Silence amounts to complicity. Change requires action and effective action requires practice, including both successes and failures. We can and must do this without assigning personal blame (which is counterproductive) and instead working together toward systemic solutions.

Finally, we believe that it is particularly important for technology organizations to recognize that they are implicated in and affected by these recent tragedies in both positive and problematic ways. For one, new technologies (e.g., cell phones, social media) are making it much more difficult for anyone to avoid or ignore these realities, perhaps accelerating the rate at which true change is possible. But, we have also seen these same technologies facilitate polarizing blame games, rather than support productive public discourse that could lead to real change. And, as the public increasingly recognizes, the technology industry itself is significantly lacking in diversity, making these work and educational environments even more unwelcoming and isolating for members from marginalized groups when tragedies like these occur.

Perhaps more than ever, then, it is important for technology organizations to redouble their efforts to address multiple biases in their own and in other social environments. This includes making changes in recruitment and retention policies that so far have led to severe underrepresentation of African-Americans, Latinos, and females. It also includes, as Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry noted in her keynote at the NCWIT summit, recognizing that broader social conditions like violence and income inequality are intimately connected to a lack of diversity in tech.

Of course, we should not expect the process of changing biased systems to be smooth or seamless. Change is often difficult and contentious, to say the least. But, we can and must do better. We must find ways to have conversations and take actions that are productive and not dismissive of the lived experiences of people who differ in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and other identities. Each of us must be willing to REALIZE, RECOGNIZE, and RESPOND to bias. We believe this change is possible and that we cannot afford to lose this opportunity to work together to accomplish it.