There’s an online quiz that’s become quite popular in the world of implicit bias study. It’s a basic program, asking you to sort words under two columns as they appear on a plain, black screen. The game starts innocuously enough; I’m presented with two columns, titled Male and Female. A name pops up on the screen, and I sort the name with a click of the “E” or “I” key. It’s easy; I’m encouraged and eager to answer quickly.
Then the real test kicks in. Two words appear in the left column, and two words show up in the right. Male and Career. Female and Home. Kate. Mike. Executive. Wedding. Professional. Cousin. Still doable.
Until the order switches. And my processing time slows down greatly.
As a woman, I’m dismayed to admit that it’s much easier to keep things in check and move faster when the female and family categories are on the same side. And as a female professional who’s no stranger to the effects of implicit gender bias in my own career, I should have aced this quiz, right?
Thinking back to my early years in the industry, I wondered about how my experiences may have accidentally created biases I carry with me today. And I thought to my young daughter, who hopefully will never be told in reviews she’s too opinionated or too confident in her ideas (“feedback” that I’ve heard multiple times). Did it take me longer to internalize the lessons I should have learned? When women in our industry moved on from Seducing the Boys Club (check it out, the book is real) to Feminist Fight Club, had my mind neglected to catch up?
And on the flip side, how can I help my female coworkers avoid what I’ve personally experienced as well, that dreadful case of imposter syndrome that seems to afflict even the most ambitious and high-achieving women?
I reached out to Kelsey Pytlik, an advertising alum and women’s leadership trainer, who now runs Gild Collective as CEO, to talk about the truth of implicit gender bias. A former UX designer, Kelsey applies principles of user experience design to help people identify and understand the genesis of gender bias, which is often both subtle and still pervasive in today’s office environments. As creator and facilitator of workshops for women, Kelsey and her team specialize in confidence-building and career development, while preparing future leaders to identify, respond to, and resist instances of implicit bias in their organizations.
JKD: First things first, I imagine the notion of gender bias was something you experienced firsthand? It seems like everyone I’ve spoken with has their own story…
Like most of us, I encountered gender bias in my career before I could put a name to it. But without knowing what it was, it was hard to know how to respond.
As a UX designer, my confidence at work had always come from knowing the user and standing up for user needs. I realized that if I didn’t have the user to fall back on, my own opinions would have fallen into the background.
And I would doubt myself. Was I not being listened to for my own opinions because I was young? Because I was new to the company I worked at? I realized that I probably wasn’t the only one feeling this way, and I pivoted my efforts to career development, helping other young women find their voices and establish their authentic talents.
The true realization happened when we started Gild Collective and went through an accelerator program to grow our business. Out of 1000 companies applying, 10 were chosen for funding, and we were the only all-women team.
We encountered so many well-meaning people who didn’t realize they were treating us differently. And I found myself asking the question, “would they have asked men this question?”
JKD: I can imagine. I’m sure there was the “husband” one?
KP: Yep. The assumption that you’re able to start this because you have someone supporting you at home. Or asking about whether we’re going to start a family soon when we were talking about growing the business.
JKD: What happened next?
KP: We grew the business! I had been so immersed in user design and now, after starting Gild, I’m immersed in confidence building and leadership. In building the curriculum, I was thinking about how we could make something like unconscious bias more accessible. It’s scary to admit that you carry biases with you wherever you go—and to say that women have it too. It’s hard to wrap your head around it. I started thinking of different elements of UX and drew parallels to different elements of gender bias. And ultimately, how they all ladder up to the finished product.
JKD: That’s fascinating. We rarely talk about the fact that the way you present yourself influences how others interact with you.
KP: And vice-versa. It’s a two-way street, the way someone “logs onto you” is unique every time, because that user is coming with a different perspective. And it impacts your confidence, and what you put out into the world.
I talk about implicit bias having four components: the user flow, the wireframe, the flat design, and what we call the “live state.”
From a UX perspective, the user flow shows how a user navigates through an experience and the pathways to follow; it also shows the different places/sources a user is coming from (a news article, social media, for instance). Basically, users are coming to you from different places, and their history will impact what they’re looking for, expecting to see and way they achieve their task. Think of how people’s upbringing, past experiences, or societal inputs influence their worldview; all that impacts how they meet you.
User flow illustrates that people often come from a completely set of beliefs and understanding when they meet you.
I describe the wireframe as a blueprint for the digital experience, identifying where things should go and how they should function. That’s the construct of your unconscious bias; it creates shortcuts in your brain to help you process information more quickly, so you can function.
For example, our experience of seeing the sky has created an expectation that the sky is blue every time we look up. But if the sky were to change to neon green it would take us longer to process that it is the same thing we understand as ‘sky.’
Similarly, if you grow up with experiences in which every CEO is a man, you shouldn’t be surprised by the hiccup in your brain, making it harder to piece things together.
The wireframe of gender bias impacts how you process your experiences.
Flat design is the way that you intend to present yourself, putting yourself out there for others to interact with you. Here’s the catch. In the world of UX, you sometimes find that your flat designs don’t match your wireframe. In other words, your conscious thought and your unconscious bias don’t always line up. You may say to yourself, “I spend every day thinking women are just as competent as men,” but that doesn’t mean your mind doesn’t experience those momentary hiccups in the wireframe.
Flat design illustrates your best intention for how you want to be perceived and understood.
I talked about confidence earlier, and here’s where it comes into play. There’s always a chance that things won’t line up perfectly when you ‘go live’ and present yourself to others.
We often find there’s a gap between the ways we want to be seen and the way others perceive us; either a lack of confidence (not competence) holds us back, or our audience comes from a different set of experiences (and user flows).
Our live product ties both sides of the equation together. Imagine how our presentation style changes when we’re not feeling confident. Our voices get softer, we speak in filler, and we pass up opportunities for advancement. While our flat design may be ready to go, our confidence doesn’t seem to match. Fortunately, this is one area we can control.
While you may not be able to change another person’s user flow, you can call it out and redefine where the wireframes don’t match.
Your live state is under your control. And it’s up to you to call for a redesign.
JKD: How do you really know if you’re experiencing implicit bias?
KP: Do you find yourself thinking about the things you say or do being taken seriously? Do you need to prove yourself in a way that takes away from your ability? If so, you’re probably experiencing some sort of bias in your work.
JKD: What advice would you give someone who is experiencing what you’ve described?
KP: Well, different people have different styles of communicating. The important thing to remember is that it’s not a confrontation because people often don’t know they’re doing anything wrong. The best thing you can do is call it out and help someone recognize it. Then you’re not just defending yourself; you’re doing a service, helping educate others while improving your company culture overall.
JKD: Any parting advice?
KP: Learn from the past, but don’t dwell on it. To me, this is all about people starting to move towards an equal future, between and among men and women. Ultimately, we believe that having a sense of community and building each other up is one of the most valuable resources we have.