5 Ways to Check Your Unconscious Biases Against Women
When interacting with women in any capacity, but especially in the professional field, everyone --women included--tends to have pretty strong biases against women and their abilities to perform. I've personally been shocked at myself when I've had thoughts go through my head about how a woman on the fireline or in the office might not be fully capable.
One instance that stands out was my first trainee assignment as an Engine Boss. I was feeling pretty confident as a Prevention Tech tagged on with my district's Type 4 engine. I had several seasons of experience working with engines and this crew seemed like a bunch of nice guys. When we arrived at the fireline to check in with our Division Supervisor (DIVS), I jumped out to meet a woman. She had the tiniest, almost squeaky feminine voice and she stood no taller than myself at about 5' 6" (with a pair of logger boots on). Immediately I assumed she was the trainee. Step one in reducing this woman and her abilities / status. She was not the trainee, but the actual Division Sup, and so then I wondered if she was any good and I cringed at the possibilities of her making mistakes or of the conversations my all-male crew might have regarding her.
It turned out that my trainer and the Engine Boss actual had worked pretty closely with this DIVS and had nothing but praises to sing about her. Another guy on the engine boasted about how he had helped train her in some other capacity, but she went on to greatly surpass his own achievements and qualifications. She was a great DIVS who was competent, confident, and personable. She very quickly became my personal hero. I wanted to be just like her.
But WHY was my first reaction to question her ability?! This was and still is one of my unconscious biases. This bias is surely shaped by society at large, my general experience in the wildfire management field, and my personal experiences in being treated differently than my male co-workers. I am still working on recognizing, understanding, and changing my unconscious biases. It is a Quest I'm committed to and understand will take time and effort.
Unconscious Bias Q.U.E.S.T.
Here are 5 ways that helped me check myself and work towards change on my QUEST for equality.
In any situation it's important to question everything. To ask, "What are my perceptions?" about this person, this situation, this group, this project. Most of the time we go along just thinking the thoughts we think and not taking the time to question what our immediate reactions are.
Beyond questioning our snap judgements or immediate perceptions, it's important to understand what it does for our experiences. When I had a negative response to a woman in the DIVS role, that could lead to some serious safety issues. If I don't trust that person to lead and direct, it could change everything about how I operate with them in that leadership role.
3. Examine "Where did this perception come from?"
Once we understand some of the potential consequences of our reactions or biases, it's so important to examine them closely. Where did this perception come from? Is this true or accurate? Is this fair? Would I have had this reaction to a man in the same role?
4. Search for a new Story
When we are able to come to the conclusion that we have biases and those biases could harm us as well as others, we've got to take it to a position of change. We've got to search for a new way to tell this story. We've got to re-write our initial perception to meet with reality. In my case, the woman was highly skilled and experienced in wildland fire. Searching back into the files in our brains and editing them with the truths we find from examining our biases will help us to do better in the future.
5. Try Again
There are so many biases that we have ingrained into our unconscious mind, and it will take a lot of effort in all of our daily activities before we can truly reach a place of equal and equitable treatment of everyone. We will fail and we will make mistakes along the way. We just have to keep trying.