I have worked hard over the years, facing the unconscious biases before me while simultaneously ignoring the voices that would distract me from meeting my goals. These experiences taught me a great deal about bias and what breaking through the biases meant for me. Simply stated: breaking the bias means equal opportunity for equal effort.
It has taken me years to arrive at this. I started my career in engineering when there weren’t many women in the field. The fact that I remained in the industry and achieved great success is a source of pride, but it was not easy.
It was clear I would have to work harder than my male counterparts to build relationships to be provided with choice opportunities in college. I had to prove that I was not only smart, but that I was smarter than my peers, and worthy of the challenging opportunities and projects the university’s programs offered – typically to men. So, I needed to work harder.
This sounds unfair, and it was, but I never focused too heavily on this. I have always believed that if we focus exclusively on the bias, we fall into the trap and further feed the bias because proving the bias would drive the narrative. So instead, I focused on my goals. I had plans for my life, and these preconceived notions about women, particularly women in the sciences, had no place in my future.
Understanding I would face unconscious bias throughout my career allowed me to create a playbook that would guide me throughout my professional journey. I decided early on that I would work harder than my counterparts, not so that professors and future employers would notice me, but so that they would notice the quality of my work and my capabilities. As a result, I would build credibility, and once built, I would work even harder to sustain it.
In college, I joined honor societies and academic organizations to acquire leadership skills and the confidence to take on new challenges. Once I graduated, I connected with peers, mentors, subject matter experts, and joined organizations like ISPE to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could. I put my fears and concerns aside and put myself in situations outside of my comfort zone that created opportunities for growth.
Over the years, my life evolved, and eventually, I welcomed four children into the world. Then, I faced the bias of how I would handle motherhood. Could I still be relied on as an individual? It turns out that I could but consistent with my earlier experiences, I had to work hard to prove it.
When it came to changing my career direction, or leaving a company that I had been with for over 20 years to start my own company or joining a young start up during a pandemic, I faced biases surrounding my capabilities or reasons for the choices I was making, simply because it did not seem logical to many of my colleagues.
What I’ve learned throughout my journey is that biases will always present themselves, but they are hardly personal. Many do not realize they carry them, and they certainly do not know they influence their decision-making.
If I could leave you with a bit of advice on breaking the bias, I would say this:
- Be uncomfortable. Do not be afraid of anything. If given an assignment, always volunteer for the thing that is the hardest.
- Give yourself a break when working towards your dream. It is ok to fail or to feel disappointed when you encounter resistance, even though you know you are on the right track.
- It is also ok to ask for help. We have our own biases about how asking for help is a sign of weakness when in reality, it is a sign of strength.
- Be humble. Humility is key.
- Take everything at face value. If it’s a comment surrounding who is watching your kids while you are working, just say it is handled. If it’s an assignment you didn’t get, ask why. Be willing to listen to that feedback.
As professionals, we all face biases at all stages of our career. The best way to break through those biases is to change the dynamic and the narrative. I believe we are all capable of doing just that. I believe we can all work towards that vision together, and perhaps one day, we will truly achieve equal opportunities for equal effort.