***Quick update: We’re building a more inclusive Buffer! We’d love your feedback on our new Diversity Dashboard.*** 

I believe in the power of women to build inspiring careers in all types of fields.

At least, that’s what I thought I believed. It’s what my conscious mind thinks, at least.

My unconscious mind, however, favors traditional Western gender roles: men focusing on careers while women focus on family.

I learned about this dichotomy from taking an implicit association test, a social psychology test designed to measure a person’s unconscious or automatic associations between types of people and specific concepts or ideas.

And I’m not alone: The results of more than one million tests suggest that most people have these unconscious associations.

implicit association gender

So I thought I would search for a few ways I could begin to correct my implicit biases and bring my unconscious mind on board with what the rest of me believes.

The book Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People (the authors are the inventors of the implicit association test) has a ton of fascinating science on this topic. One bit in particular stood out to me:

“Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University who received a Nobel Prize for his work on memory, was once pressed to say how much of the mind works unconsciously; he gave an estimate of 80 to 90 percent…

The actual number isn’t important or even possible to derive. The point is that experts agree that the ability to have conscious access to our minds is quite low.”

So it’s especially important to focus on inclusivity in our conscious minds, because our unconscious has already put most of us (me included!) in quite a deficit.

Though this list is by no means exhaustive, here are a few things I discovered that might help us to counteract our own unconscious and get closer to the people we truly want to be.

1. Use inclusive language

One thing we’ve been working on lately in Buffer’s virtual workplace, where most communication is written, is to be mindful of the language we use and make sure it’s as inclusive as possible.

For example, many of us have been cracking down on our use of the colloquial “hey guys” greeting as we address the team. It was, of course, never meant to exclude the women on the team and has always been intended as a general greeting.

But we value clarity in communication at Buffer, and this greeting, friendly though its intentions might be, can be easily misconstrued.

Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou rightly gave us a little nudge on this recently, and we really appreciate it:

It’s a great reminder to keep going on this improvement, and being aware of all our language choices. Plus we occasionally get to reference this awesome flowchart from Tech Lady Mafia.

group of women flowchart

2. Expose yourself to counterstereotyping imagery (as simple as a screensaver)

Even the creators of the implicit association tests still “fail” them.

Blindspot co-author Mahzarin Banaji came up a simple and unique solution to combat some of her own “mindbugs:”

“She created a screensaver for her computer that displays images of a diverse array of humanity. She assumes that these images may do little more than keep her alerted to the actual range of diversity in the world, as opposed to that of the more limited set of humans she encounters in her daily experience. She also favored images that represent counterstereotypes. Short bald men who are senior executives is one of her favorite counterstereotyping images. Another is a drawing from a New Yorker magazine cover, of a construction worker with hard hat on, breast-feeding her baby.”

3. Consider your office furnishings

If you have a physical office that you want to make more inclusive for both genders, this study might be of interest.

At the University of Washington, Sapna Cheryan demonstrated that adding more feminine decor to computer science classrooms strengthened women’s associations of female gender with the possibility of computer science careers.

office environment

By changing out the objects in a computer science classroom from things like a Star Trek poster and video games to objects not considered stereotypical of computer science like a nature poster, the experiment boosted female study participant’s interest in computer science to the level of their male peers.

The study concluded:

“Environments can act like gatekeepers by preventing people who do not feel they fit into those environments from ever considering membership in the associated groups.”

4. Empower mentors for underrepresented groups

The researcher Buju Dasgupta has lots of interesting studies going on about implicit prejudice and stereotypes. One I really like is the Stereotype Inoculation Model.

This is her theory that successful people in your group who look like you, like teachers and peers, can function as a “social vaccine” that inoculates you from some of the self-doubt or alienation you might otherwise face in such a situation.

mentor study

So far she has found a strengthening of “female = leader” and “female = math” associations in women college students after they received sustained exposure via their college courses to women faculty members.

“Results from several lab and field studies revealed that exposure to female STEM professors and experts enhanced women’s positive implicit attitudes toward STEM, increased their identification with STEM, their confidence in STEM, and effort on tests and exams.”

This could means that having even a few visible members of underrepresented groups on your team could have a compounding effect, if your organization can encourage and support mentoring relationships.

5. Use social media to amplify new voices

Did you know, in its analytics section, Twitter will tell you the gender split of your followers?

I was a bit surprised to discover my followers are majority male (though there is a bit of uncertainty about how Twitter figures out those genders).

Twitter gender split

I was even more surprised by my results from Twee-Q, a tool that analyzes the gender of the voices you amplify through retweets. I have a lot of work to do in amplifying smart female voices!

twee-q score

Of the 107,966 Twitter accounts that have been input into Twee-Q, there’s an immense tendency to amplify men more often than women:

twee-q totals

After discovering that he followed a nearly equal ratio of women and men, but retweeted men three times as often as women, the blogger and entrepreneur Anil Dash tried an experiment.

For a year he attempted to amplify different kinds of voices than he normally would by retweeting women exclusively. He ended up enjoying the experiment and recommending it to others:

“If you’re inclined, try being mindful of whose voices you share, amplify, validate and promote to others… we spend so very much of our time on these social networks, and there’s so much we can do to right the wrongs we’ve seen in other media, through simple, small actions. This one’s been a delightful and fun place to start.”

6. Find members of underrepresented groups that you admire

This is a really fun and simple one. What if you could fight your brain’s unconscious bias simply by admiring others?

Another study from the very busy Dr. Buju Dasgupta found that when people are exposed to admired members of disadvantaged groups (African Americans, gays and lesbians, elderly, women), they express less implicit bias against these groups.

In this study of racial implicit bias, participants revealed less bias after being shown “black examplars”—pictures of famous and admired people like Martin Luther King Jr., Colin Powell, Michael Jordan and Denzel Washington.

admired members study

This means one easy way to work on unconscious bias could be to simply seek out more admired members of underrepresented groups and focus on those people’s work more often.

7. Use your imagination: Counterprogram your brain

Possibly the simplest way of all to retrain your unconscious mind? Use your imagination.

At the University of Colorado, researcher Irene Blair discovered that simple imagination exercises were enough to weaken some implicit stereotypes.

She asked a mixed-gender group of college students to “take a few minutes to imagine what a strong woman is like, why she is considered strong, what she is capable of doing, and what kinds of hobbies and activities she enjoys.”

The participants came up with all sort of images, from bosses to athletes:

strong woman study

No matter what their image was, participants who engaged in the mental imagery exercise produced “substantially weaker implicit stereotypes” compared with participants who engaged in neutral mental imagery or no mental energy.

So if you happen to be challenged by a particular implicit bias, discovered either through taking a test or your own intuition, you can try counterprogramming your brain with some simple visual exercises like this one.

Over to you

Being empathetic and inclusive to those of all walks of life is a skill it seems that most of us could work on for a lifetime.

I’m looking forward to putting these strategies into practice to see if I can move my unconscious mind in the right direction.

What strategies have you tried to create more inclusivity in your work and life? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • Thanks for writing this article, Courtney! It serves as a nice gentle reminder :)

    Another good way might be to simply hang out with people of different demographics (race, religion, gender, etc.). Often, it made me realise that the associations I made subconsciously are not true :)

  • Hey Courtney! :)

    Wow – I’m really enjoying your articles on diversity in the workplace! Your willingness to tackle topics that can be considered “hot button/taboo” (given all that is going on in this climate) is really refreshing! :)

    Regarding your question – about what strategies I’ve tried to create more inclusivity in my work in life – I gotta say, my life is one giant inclusivity experiment. :)

    As a result, I’m emailing you a response. *Warning: it’s probably the longest reply in history. I weep for your eyes. #MyBad… :)

    So IF you’re looking for a dissertation to read before bed, please check your inbox soon. Otherwise, I recommend you read it AFTER consuming caffeine. And lots of it. I’m sorry, again.

    • Ooooh I am so excited to read it, Thea!!!!

      • @courtneyseiter:disqus Apologies in advance for all of the typos. I do my best proofreading AFTER I hit *SEND*. D’oh! :/

        • Thea!! Oh my goodness, this was absolutely breathtaking to read. I can’t thank you enough for choosing to share so much of yourself and your experiences with me. I will follow up with more thoughts via email but I just wanted to say a giant, public thank you first! You are amazing. :)

  • This went into my Buffer. Sadly, my Twee-Q score was only 4.8. I feel I have some work to do…

    • Me and you both! Would love to hear how it goes for you! :)

      • Maybe I’ll post on my blog about my efforts in the future. Might be an interesting exercise to journal about it, and then use those journal notes to write a blog post. We’ll see.

  • Hey Courtney,

    I just took the test and I wasn’t expecting to be so biased :/. Embracing diversity and fighting stereotypes has always been a big part of my life and the biggest fight is probably with myself.

    I realized when I moved to Poland how much I relied on stereotypes whenever I met someone from a new country. I’ve always found it funny how living abroad both strengthens and weakens stereotypes.
    On the one hand I am learning so much about other cultures and I am feeling more and more like a “citizen of the world”. On the other hand I use stereotypes as a way to find familiarity in an unfamiliar world.

    It’s hard, but I’ve made it my number one priority in life to learn from anyone I have a conversation with. I might not agree with them but I love trying to understand everyone’s point of view.
    I have a good friend who’s probably one of the most open minded people I’ve met. I will always remember how one day she decided to go get some fresh bread and croissants for everyone after a party. She went really early in the morning (around 5) and was gone for 2-3 hours. When she came back she told us it was raining so she put her scarf on her head. When she arrived at the tram stop, she met a muslim woman who asked her if she was muslim because of the scarf. She said no but the woman then offered her to take her to an arabic bakery that opened around 6. She went and came back to us with Pita instead of croissants. This story always stuck with me and that’s how I try to leave my life. Be open to meeting new people and discovering new things.

    • Hi Aurelie,

      what an amazing comment! The implicit association tests were mindblowing to me as well. I realized I have implicit biases too, even though I try to be open and inviting. These biases are deeply ingrained societal learnings that are hard to detect. I highly recommended reading the “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People book” mentioned in this post.

      They talk a lot about what that means. It’s often cognitively dissonant to realize this. Some people blatantly exclaim the tests as being false and can’t accept that they might have biases. It might be tough, but I feel, as your awesome story mentions, that if we’re more aware of them we can work and grow through our biases.

      Loved the story and thanks so much for sharing it.

      • It’s funny you mention people often turn against the test. One of my first thought when I finished it, was “of course I would make less mistakes in the final round (men on the same side as career and women on the family side) because I had time to get used to the test. This was my gut reaction and it had everything to do with cognitive dissonance :).

        We all have biases on some level, and I agree with you that being aware they exist is the first step toward fighting them.

        I just added Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People to my reading list. I’m fascinated by this subject and can’t wait to start the book.

  • I got little or no gender association with career or family. That reflects quite well how I feel actually.

    I think that while society definitely plays a role in giving us these biases, it’s not always so black and white.
    I grew up in Pakistan, a highly patriarchal society.
    However I’ve always felt growing up, that societal setup that revolves around the man working and the woman looking after the family wasn’t really something that sat comfortably with me.

    I think part of what helped shape my world view was growing up with 3 sisters who all have strong personalities and views, and growing up with them and noticing that they are just as physically strong, just as smart (if not smarter actually) helped. The thought that they are more suited to x and I’m more suited to y because I’m a man and they are women never really entered my head.

    I think also it’s important to reflect on society, religion, morality, philosophy from an early age, asking yourself questions like, how does x make me feel, what do I believe in, is situation x wrong? is it right? Why does it feel wrong/right.
    Does x make logical sense to me? Why or why not.

    Trying to be more self aware definitely helps. If you are aware of your biases you can do something about them, or try and figure out why you feel that way, where they come from.

    Sorry I’m totally rambling.

    Great post Courtney very thought provoking :)

    • Very inspiring to hear your story, Abdul! Sounds like your sisters had a very positive effect on your world view! :)

  • Coming from a man who’s going to be in college for a traditionally female role, Special Care Counselling, I think we’ve got to move past these biases. These are all great suggestions for correcting improper thought and I’ll certainly be taking the test myself.

    The major problem comes from cultural and social inheritance, because society loves to force conformity upon the masses, and channels of information such as national news stations don’t often help, but rather perpetuate these biases. There is more then correcting individual biases if we’re ever going to have a chance at removing the majority of these biases from social and cultural trends.

    But, it all has to start somewhere and this is a tremendously elegant and informative way to start that change, because we’re often to blind to see the error in our ways, which you’ve proven with superb clarity in this article.

    • Thanks for sharing these smart thoughts here, Shawn! I think you’re absolutely right; unconscious biases are absolutely reinforced by society, making them even trickier to eradicate!

  • Mathias Luz

    It really called my attention the fact that many of us are unaware of the wordings impact we routinely use… Never thought of how a simple “hey guys” might be gender biased depending on the situation, even if we do not deem it to! Thanks Courtney for sharing and for the efforts on building a more inclusive workplace!

    • Hey Mathias! Thanks for checking out the post; so glad it might have helped out a bit!

  • I scored in that small 6% of test-takers who have a “Slight association between female and career”. I think the best policy regarding inclusiveness is to stop dividing people by labels (gender, race, etc). There’s a natural tendency for us to want to act on data we measure, but if we’re focused on measuring gender or race in business it’s going to be tempting to act in ways that could be discriminatory, or even illegal! My advice would be to stop measuring things like this.

    The best anecdote I’ve heard for how men and women should respect each other in the workplace is found a quote from film director Kevin Smith, “libido can cloud judgment and make a guy act a fool. So from 14 on, I’ve always tried to deal with women like I deal with men: from the neck up.” Kevin refuses to acknowledge the sexuality of his coworkers in a professional setting, and it has made his work life a lot easier.

    Full (better) quote can be found here: http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/uxxpy/i_am_thatkevinsmith_im_41_i_have_moobs_and_i_made/c4zjq3r

    I think that’s such a great policy, that since I read that I’ve been trying to treat everybody the same way: from the neck up! When you look at the men and women this way, the differences ’caused’ by gender in the workplace fade away naturally. The problems aren’t so much caused by gender, but caused by artificially creating two (or more) groups in opposition that aren’t in opposition, just exhibit different physiological traits.

    • Very interesting, Tom; thanks for sharing his (and your) perspective!