Team working by group video call share ideas, global teamsTeam working by group video call share ideas, global teams

Recognising unconscious bias in the virtual workplace

Team working by group video call share ideas, global teams, virtual workplace

By Charlotte Berg, CEO at Compodium

2020 and 2021 will be memorable years – years that have caused many people a lot of hardship, but ones that also ushered in a new era of digital, workplace and social transformation.

One of the central threads to this is video communication – now widely used in almost all environments. Whether it’s meetings between employees, talking to your doctor or staying in touch with family members, video became the go-to tool in a year where face-to-face communication was severely restricted.

One of the first places to see this change was television news interviews.  Where previously guests would have patiently waited behind the scenes, ready to join the presenters in the studio for a short face-to-face conversation, suddenly these interviews began taking place over a video conferencing link.  This was an immediate solution, but an effective alternative for providing an expert opinion on a news story.  It was an approach that almost every industry would soon replicate.

The power of a bookcase

What became clear very quickly in the move to home-based interviewees on the news was how effective a subtle piece of background self-promotion could be on a video call.  With most of the screen taken up with the call participant, there isn’t a great deal of room for much else.  However, a well-placed book, award or piece of art in the background of the call – for example, on a bookshelf – can be an extremely effective promotional tool for the interviewee.  A shameful plug or brilliant marketing?  That’s a question open to debate.  But the innate power of imagery in this context is clear – which is why marketing agencies can charge significant sums for delivering this type of branding for businesses.

As Newton’s third law states: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  In this situation, a well-placed prop in a video call background can encourage a viewer to make assumptions about intelligence or accomplishment, or perhaps be more likely to take a particular action (“buy my book!”).  The opposite is also true; an ill-thought-out object in the background has a subtle power to convey a negative message, encourage harmful assumptions or, at its worst, damage the relationship between participants.

This notion is called unconscious bias.  It’s one of the many ‘tools’ the human brain relies on to speed up decision making – along with confirmation bias, availability bias and hindsight bias to name just a few – and is present in all of us.  Everyone has unconscious biases and – as the name suggests – for the most part, people are unaware they impact their decision making and assumptions.

Recognising bias in new ways

The question of bias is at its heart a complex and difficult one.  Regardless of how open-minded we try to be, having bias is part of what makes us human.  But combined with societal, cultural and historical stereotypes and prejudices, unconscious bias can heavily influence how we behave towards, or think about, other people.

Recognising, understanding and overcoming this bias plays a huge role in the workplace.

Many organisations are aware of the issues surrounding unconscious bias in the workplace and there are a range of advisory services, such as Acas, offering independent help and advice – online tests that help individuals become more aware of their own biases.  The impact of unconscious bias in the workplace can determine how people make choices, from the way they allocate tasks to how they manage challenging situations and conflict between colleagues.  It can emerge in even the most inclusive of teams, particularly during challenging and stressful times, or periods of uncertainty.

And this is where we need to be mindful in the new era of video collaboration.  In the past, efforts to address unconscious bias has focused on first impressions, handshakes, eye contact, and clothing choices.  With much of this now off the table, organisations must ensure the same level of focus is given to video communications – providing limited body language but other considerations such as background and décor.  It’s entirely likely that video conferencing has actually opened up new avenues for unconscious bias, with everyone from employees to doctors now showcasing more aspects of their personal lives and living spaces.

Whether it’s seeing where someone lives, meeting their pets, hearing their children, or noticing a well-stocked garden – these things can contribute to the subconscious thoughts, feelings, assumptions and decisions someone makes on a video call.

Seeing bias for what it is

Amy Bonomi, a social science researcher from Michigan State University, and Nelia Viveiros from University of Colorado, have recently explained how unconscious bias works in practice during video conversations.  The researchers concluded that video calls have the potential to uncover unconscious bias related to gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.  Even something as straightforward to a conversation icebreaker can unintentionally reinforce dominant social norms and identities.

In the new era of video collaboration, it’s crucial that organisations recognise the potential for bias to occur in this way and put in place processes and tools to help employees identify and overcome this when it happens.  Amy Bonomi and Nelia Viveiros offer a number of areas organisations can focus on the support inclusivity, including:

  • Using inclusive language
  • Approaching conversations with sensitivity
  • Remaining conscious of symbolism in the ‘virtual environment’ and how participants may want to express themselves
  • Challenging microaggressions when they occur and any negative effects they may have had on participants
  • Respecting participants’ time by including frequent breaks in long calls

Unconscious bias is not unique to the post-pandemic era we now find ourselves in, but organisations need to be even more mindful of its impact now virtual collaboration is firmly established in the workplace.  Working virtually offers enormous benefits to society.  But as with any widespread social shift, it’s crucial we ensure inclusivity is at its heart.

Inspirational Woman: Charlotte Berg | CEO, Compodium

Charlotte Berg, CompodiumBefore joining Compodium I spent 20 years in life sciences, at a number of med-tech and bio-tech organisations.

The biggest factor in my decision to move into the tech industry was actually quite a simple one – I like speed!  Compared with the tech industry, these sectors move at a snail’s pace.  Aside from the obvious example we’re seeing at the moment with the Covid-19 vaccine, regulations and clinical studies mean product development takes a huge amount time.  In med-tech, a typical timeframe to get a product to market is 5-7 years – in pharmaceuticals it can take up to 15 years.    Now I get to see people using the products and services I’m working on within months – and I know if they will be successful or not within a couple of years.

The whole principle of agile development really appeals to me – taking a service or product feature from concept to the hands of customers as quickly as possible, and then being able to change and improve it straight away – you can’t do that in life sciences.  It’s this mindset that allows you to be really creative with technology and develop products that people actually need.

I’m now fortunate enough to be right in the middle of this with Compodium, which has the potential to become a really huge company in the next few years.  Since I joined as CEO, we’ve made massive strides – both in terms of our partners and with the launch of Vidicue, a video collaboration solution that helps organisations secure and authenticate external communications with customers.  At a time when many of us are still working remotely and entire industries are fundamentally shifting to a more distributed operations model, it’s been incredibly exciting to launch a platform specifically designed for this shift in global culture.

Our mission with Vidicue is to offer end-to-end encryption and full authentication for all participants to a video call and bring a new level of trust, security, and innovation to digital video conversations.  We’ve designed Vidicue to meet the needs of regulated industries, such as healthcare, financial services, legal, and education, as well as any large enterprise or public sector organisation.  This fills a stark gap in the video conferencing market and we’re already seeing rapid growth in response.  There will be lots of investment on the horizon - both financially and in recruitment.  Despite the challenges we’ve all faced, 2020 was an exciting year for us and we expect things to get even bigger in 2021.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not really!  Only in that I knew I wanted to be a CEO.  I studied a lot of business law because I knew someday, I wanted to run a company.  I also studied finance – not specifically to be a CFO, but because I knew it would be a good way to develop my understanding of how a business is run and what parameters you need to focus on.  As a CEO, I’m very thankful for my time as CFO.

One thing I definitely didn’t plan was staying in life sciences for as many years as I did – that part was a complete coincidence.  It’s actually a funny story…  When I was 18 I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or where to start, so I went on the website that lists all of the companies in Sweden.  I typed in ‘C’ (for Charlotte!) and the first company that came up was Cavidi, a small biotech company.  I went on the company’s web page and didn’t understand anything – it was lots of science and men in lab coats!  But I called them and asked if they had any open jobs for financial assistants and they did.  Luckily, it worked out!

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Absolutely.  I first became a CFO at 22.  To be a female CFO at that age wasn’t appreciated… The first time I entered the board meeting they knew who I was, but they asked the CEO if I was there to serve the coffee!  From there I understood that I really needed to know what was going on and ensure I had everything in place.  I learned a lot and actually ended up on that board.  It was the best school ever in the lesson of how to overcome this kind of rudeness, which unfortunately is still out there.

As a female CEO you experience these challenges all the time, but you have to deal with them.  I’m quite outspoken about it, but it’s sad this is still part of the business landscape – and that people still question women leaders simply for being women.  I still get questions about motherhood and being a CEO.  How do I cope?  Should I not be spending time with my children?  How do my kids manage?  This is definitely my biggest challenge.  I even read recently that female CEOs get much harder and more negative questions from investors than men do.  I don’t know if I’ve experienced this – maybe I’m just used to it!  I hadn’t considered it before, but I know I have always worked hard to make sure that I know everything and will be able to answer all of the tricky questions I know will arise from investors or partners.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

To become a CEO at the age of 33.  This was my goal from the beginning of my career and to do this at a listed company at such a young age is definitely my biggest achievement to-date.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Being surrounded with great people throughout my whole career – even now.  In a male dominated environment, this has been a huge factor for me. On both of the boards that have appointed me as CEO, all of the members were men.  I received lots of questions about my capacity to be CEO as a young woman, but I know they did too.  I’m thankful for them being bold enough to take the decision to appoint me and stand by it.

For me personally, I think being bold has helped me a lot.  I love to take on challenges and I see myself as both a driven and positive person.  I think it’s harder to make a mark or stand out if your personality leans more towards the conservative or neutral side.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Be bold.  Technology is a sector where everyone thinks you should have a computer science degree and be able to code or have developer skills.  We need to get the news out that the tech industry needs a far more diverse range of roles, skills and people.  It’s definitely a closed sector and hard to get into for many people.  The stark gender gap highlights this.

I’ve found that a lot of companies just want to hire people who have worked at the really big tech brands.  But there are so many small start-ups doing great things.  My advice would be to start by being part of a smaller tech company first to gain the knowledge and experience that will help you build your career.

But we also need to question the closed board mentality if we’re going to address the deeper issue of inclusiveness in tech.  We need to bring in new perspectives.  The industry already has the technical skills and knowledge; what it doesn’t have is the other ways of thinking. I’m a proven example of this.  We need to get the industry focused on investing in new perspectives and to stop putting people in boxes. We need to focus on the person – what they bring to the table and what their mindset is.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Definitely.  I was actually warned about this when I told people I wanted to go into tech.  I was warned that it was a sexist industry and that I was going to meet a lot of men that won’t approve of women.  Sadly though, I don’t think this is that different to a lot of industries.  What I can say is that 99.9% of the people I have met so far are serious, lovable people.  So, in some cases I think this is a rumour – tech is no worse than other industries.  But again, we need to understand that tech isn’t just about coding and development – we need to have more women on board and not just for the financial side, but for the technical side too.  This facilitates another way of thinking.  We’re working on this at Compodium – ensuring there are no barriers for women and changing the preconceptions of how the tech industry is run.  Businesses need to make sure women know they’re welcome and that the company will appreciate them for being women, for their new ideas and for the work that they do.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology? 

We see in the gender gap statistics that there are far too few women working in tech.  What we don’t see is what percentage of those women are working in the ‘female-approved’ roles – areas like marketing, HR or finance.  Companies need to focus on providing more education to push women into different areas and to work on different projects.  Anyone can learn technical skills, so it’s crucial that companies allow and enable career mobility for women.

Networking opportunities are also a great way of empowering women – helping them get support from other women, access to training and mentorship programmes.  I’ve been part of these programmes and they have been so important to me personally – giving me the opportunity to actually move into tech.  These programmes are becoming more common, but there is far more we can do to give women support and mentorship at all levels.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

Education is the magic bullet.  We need to make these changes at the education level – from university right down the school years.  Part of this is changing the rumour that tech as an industry for men!  It’s popular now for men and boys, who see it as fast and edgy.  But when it comes to young girls, very few talk excitedly about tech.

We need to educate and change mindsets.  Part of this is a lack of female role models in the industry.  Women in tech need to speak out – not just in the media, but directly to children and young women by going into schools and universities.  I saw first-hand how this can have a monumental effect on young minds when I spoke at a university – over the next few days we received so many applications from exited young women.  They were thrilled with the idea that they were women and they could apply to work at a tech company that had women leaders.  We need to put ourselves on the map to show them what’s possible.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?  

There is a great career podcast I love called Karriärpodden that only interviews women and they have had a lot of guests from the tech industry on the show.  Really, anything that offers support and knowledge from other women and a platform for sharing experiences on overcoming barriers is great.  The She Talks Tech podcast is also fab!

WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here