Identity, Privilege, and Subconscious Bias (and Bros)

Identity is complicated, here’s my story.

I was born in New York and am a dual American-French citizen. My parents are Cambodian and French and came to the US in 1973 with a small amount of money, no friends and family, and barely speaking English.

When I applied for college, I was forced to define my identity within a sole checkbox. The box that felt most appropriate was ‘Asian-American,’ after all, I was both, and felt a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunities provided to my family and by my birth country.

But this made me feel uneasy — I really wanted to check the ‘Other’ box. As my mom pointed out, technically, I was both a French citizen and European-Asian. That clearly wasn’t Asian-American.

But I felt that ‘Other’ was reserved for a different group, under-represented minorities, and checking this box would be denying someone else who had less opportunity than me.

Identity and Privilege

Identity is the beautiful combination of our history, experiences, communities, and beliefs. It does not fit neatly into checkboxes (or resumes or social media profiles).

In my college application, my uneasiness arose from the belief that I was entering the application process from a place of privilege. In this case, I had:

“A special right, an advantage, granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.”

Yes, my parents came here with very little and worked their assess off while making countless sacrifices that, even today 36 years later, I am still discovering and appreciating. In fact, it is because of these sacrifices — the SAT courses, private school, shuttling around extracurricular activities that did feel like a particular person with an advantage. Yes, I have worked my ass off — but isn’t that table stakes at this point?

We are not boxes and the application process highlighted this to me personally. Colleges (and even the US census) must use imprecise shortcuts to determine each person’s unique identity and whether they are in a position privilege. I felt one of these shortcuts as I internally wrestled with being an over-represented minority (Asian) or an under-represented one (Other).

Over and under-represented are binary identifiers and only paint a fragment of identity. Further illustrating this point, within Asians, Southeast Asians are under-represented (in fact 40% of Americans of Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laos have only a high school degree.) Even amongst White US Males, representing 115 mm people, Veterans are under-represented with 18%. Transgender is under-represented relative the more traditional grouping of LGBT. The list can go on and on. Human beings cannot be represented with binary identifiers.

Understanding identity is the first step towards discussing diversity and inclusiveness.

Diverse Teams Win

So why does diversity matter? Large firms often praise their diversity efforts and they come across as PR-exercises or board-led decrees with very limited follow through to the individual employee.

But diverse teams outperform, they win, for reasons such as increasing perspectives, engendering greater debate, and developing more empathy and compassion — the evidence is indisputable. A recent quote from Mike Gamson from LinkedIn read:

“I don’t care about diversity because it’s in vogue. I care about winning.”

Yet one does not have to look far to see industries that are extremely homogenous: Board rooms, VCs’ portfolio companies, investment firms, and even Hollywood directors all start to look eerily homogenous.

Why does this happen? In my personal experience, the people “with a particular advantage” tend to be “Bros”. Bros drink beers together. Bros refer and recruit each other. Bros invest in each other’s companies. Bros dominate decision-making. So why are we surprised with the ensuing homogeneity.

Many (Michael Moritz in most spectacular fashion) have referred to this as a “pipeline problem” — the pool of talented candidates who are female or Under-represented minorities is too small and hence this lack of diversity is just a proxy of the pool itself.

I call bullshit on that argument. It’s the deadly cocktail of two things: laziness and subconscious bias.

Subconscious biases are the infamous “unknown unknowns” and are hard to identify, let alone combat. I want to share my personal experience and how I’m proactively identifying and addressing my own.

An Experiment

I am a Quantified Self disciple, so first I built a Personal CRM and then used the data to shed some light on my relationships.

Since October 2013, I kept track of all the new people I met. Many were for work, but others were just part of my broader efforts to build a community and learn about other industries.

Here are the stats for this two year period.

  • I met 596 people in total
  • 482 were Bros (a category in which I include myself)
  • 114 (~19%) were Female (which I tallied from my CRM)
  • And 19 (3%) were URM (the number was so low, I could recall it from memory)
  • (Note: The numbers don’t sum to 100% as there was a small, but insignificant, amount of overlap.)

As Jay-Z says “Numbers don’t lie” and these are pretty pathetic. So what did I do…

Step 1: Noticing

The first challenge in eliminating subconscious bias is to actually detect it. To combat this, I used a crude approach in the form of a “counting” app called Tally Counters.

I set up 4 sets of counters:

The labels are self-explanatory, but the top two indicate any new meeting (or phone call) with either a Bro or Female/Under-represented minority and the bottom two, the same with an existing member of my personal network.

I didn’t set any targets but just wanted to watch how these numbers evolved over time. In the existing category, the count stayed fairly balanced, primarily because I was in control of the scheduling of these meetings.

It got more juicy with new meetings, as these were all the result of inbound introductions. And since, 80% of my network are Bros like me, well that whole “pipeline problem” quickly made itself be known.

There were a few other behaviors that I observed during this experiment:

Networks are Exponentially Compounding — so is Laziness

Had I just adopted the passive approach to taking introductions, the numbers would be close to 80%/19/3. While the numbers above show me almost at parity, it was not without significant effort on my part — I employed a variety of tactics to defer, deny, or balance these introductions. More on this below.

The Simple Counter can Reveal Subconscious Biases

Just tracking these meetings led me to some unexpected observations:

  • By passively taking meetings, there were weeks during which 100% of my meetings would be with Bros
  • Bros were very aggressive to respond to meetings and force their way to the top of the pipeline. (For example, if I suggested meeting in 2 weeks time, there were numerous counter-requests on meeting in 1 week).
  • The meetings I took on weekends were almost exclusively with Bros. This should’ve been obvious to me, but wasn’t until after I started tracking. Since I usually do 3–4 meetings/calls per weekend, it created a natural tension toward Bros. I’m not suggesting that this specifically requires changing my behavior, but was a new observation.

The Subconscious can also Drive Positive Behavior

If you’ve ever tried a FitBit (or any other wearable which measures how many steps one takes) one of the first behavioral changes folks notice is that just knowing that your steps are being counted makes you walk more. I’m sure there is a behavioral economics term for this, but I’ll call it Subconscious Positive Reinforcement.

This Positive Reinforcement led me to strive to keep the numbers at parity, even though it wasn’t even a stated goal at the outset. In fact, just like a FitBit’er who gets lazy and sees their step count decline, I was very cautious to monitor each and every meeting.

Can more be done?

While noticing was a positive first step, I wanted to do more, both in my own network and to influence the behavior of my fellow Bros — this is how change occurs. A forward looking ratio of 80%/19/3 is personally unacceptable.

The Rooney Rule?

I toyed with an idea from unlikely source, the NFL — it turns out they too have an abundance of Bros in the coaching ranks. In 2003 they instituted the Rooney Rule, to improve diversity at the head coaching level.

The Rooney Rule relates to head coaching roles and states: for each Bro candidate, one female/minority candidate must also be interviewed. This is not a quota or preferencing mechanism, but a method to broaden the pipeline. And it has shown small improvement: From 1992–2002, a minority was chosen to fill only seven of the 92 head-coaching vacancies, or less than 10 percent. Since 2003, minorities have filled 17 of the 87 head coaching vacancies, or about 20 percent.

Ultimately I decided that formally enforcing parity in the very personal world of relationship building is a leap too far (for now) — when I tested the approach with Bros the reactions ranged from encouraging to offended (the median reaction being befuddled). I felt like I risked alienating certain relationships in mandating a quid pro quo when someone was making an introduction on my behalf.

This discernment gave me an unambiguous lens into why the lack of diversity and current status quo persist — when left to our own devices, we naturally gravitate to those who are most similar to us. And since networks are compounding systems, the status quo persists, or even worsens. Parity was more achievable in systems where I played an active role and could decide how and with whom I spent my time. Conversely, the passive nature of inbound introductions was always pushing towards Bro-heaviness.

More importantly, it heightened awareness around my own Privilege — instances where I was a “person with a particular advantage.” I urge you to do the same, and then reflect on your own ensuing subconscious biases.

Awareness is the first step to fighting those “unknown unknowns” and let’s commit to not compounding the effects of laziness.

Thank you for reading.

Diversity and subconscious bias are frequently covered over at Rad Reads.

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