Unconscious bias is why we don't have a diverse workplace, says Google

Statistics don't lie: If you're working at a Silicon Valley tech company, you're probably a guy. It's a big problem -- most corporate-diversity reports show a male-dominated industry, and colleges are struggling to find new ways to enroll women in computer science and technology programs. It's not just a matter of attracting minorities to technology, however. Google says part of the problem is in our mind: a shared, unconscious bias that not only affects the makeup of Silicon Valley's workforce, but also affects what markets technology company's products reach.

Google states its case very carefully: Unconscious bias is a normal part of how humans make decisions. It's a "mental shortcut" that fills in gaps in our knowledge with similar data from past experiences and cultural norms. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead to bad decisions. As an example, Google points to mobile video uploads -- the team that built the iOS YouTube app didn't consider left-handed users when it added in mobile uploads, causing videos recorded in a left-handed person's view of landscape to appear upside-down.

The YouTube example is intended as a demonstration on how an unconscious bias can have negative effects on a minority group -- a parallel for hiring practices and male-dominated work environments -- but it's also a great example of how touchy the larger subject can be. While the facts show obvious diversity problems within the industry, nobody likes being told they might be sexist, racist or otherwise prejudiced. If it's an unconscious fault, Google proposes, maybe it can be corrected. This appears to be the basis of Google Ventures' Unconscious Bias @ Work seminar, an internal education program designed to create a "more aware" Google.

The entire workshop is available for viewing on YouTube, and Google says that more than 26,000 employees have attended a session. Supposedly, it's already doing good: When the company opened a new building last year, unconscious-bias-aware Googlers pointed out that most of the conference rooms were named after male scientists -- prompting several of the offices to be renamed in honor of historically important women. Google says it's also working with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the Ada Initiative for further research.

Building a more diverse workplace is great (just ask eBay), but it only addresses a small part of a larger problem. Women aren't just underrepresented in the workforce -- they're oftentimes harassed, demeaned or subject to an overt, conscious bias that hurts their careers. Google didn't address these issues directly, but if its unconscious-bias program proves effective, perhaps it can help eliminate some of the ingrained habits that indirectly contribute to more aggressive examples of sexism. Either way, it seems like a step in the right direction -- awareness is almost never a bad thing, and we like to err on the side of optimism. Check out Google's official announcement at the source link below, or simply click the video above to view the workshop for yourself.

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