A story about the stories we tell
One of the important premises of unconscious bias trainings is that no one is immune. Spotting patterns and making quick judgments is built into every human’s brain. DEI facilitators are not immune.
Several years ago, a colleague and I were co-facilitating a workshop at a law firm on building an inclusive culture. A group of men walked in, sat down in the back row, folded their arms, and stared at us. They weren’t hostile, but they didn’t look friendly.
In a matter of seconds, an entire story unfolded in my head about this group. These men had only come because the managing partner had made the workshop mandatory. I knew what they were thinking about: all the work on their desks, and the billable hours that they are missing. I knew that they believed DEI work isn’t worth their time. I even knew their future behavior: they were not likely to be very engaged during the session. And I would want to be prepared for one or more of them to be, shall we say, difficult.
Now, resistant participants don't throw me off. I have enough experience to understand that everyone comes in with different life experience and knowledge. Challenging people with new perspectives and information is an essential part of the work. Still, their skeptical energy triggered a set of facilitation strategies for me. I mentally adapted my approach in subtle ways to account for their state of mind.
Fast forward to the end of the workshop. The group was synthesizing what they’d learned and brainstorming strategies to make change in the organization. The topic had turned to barriers women face in the firm, and whether family leave policies might be an area to examine. In the midst of this active discussion, a young woman in the front made a comment:
“There is no glass ceiling for women in law firms,” she said, with intensity. “Women shouldn’t get any special accommodations. Being a lawyer is demanding, and if you do the work, you’ll make partner. If you don’t, this isn’t the career for you.”
I looked at this young woman, surprised and a little disappointed. It was clear to me that she wasn’t anywhere near the glass ceiling, yet she was adamant in her position. What gave her such a strong opinion about something she hadn’t yet experienced?
As I was thinking about what I was going to say to her, I saw a hand go up. It was one of the men in the back. He had a look of irritation on his face.
My heart sank. I had to call on him but feared he’d jump on this contrary bandwagon with limited time for us to course correct. I inhaled and gestured to him. “Yes?”
“Come on,” he began. “If the firm really wanted to fix this problem, we would. It’s not that hard.” Everyone turned to look at him.
“Fifteen years ago, a colleague in my department went out on maternity leave. There wasn't any formal program in place so the rest of us stepped up to handle her matters while she was on leave. We helped her transition out and back in. Now she is a partner. We just have to pull together to do it. It’s not that hard.”
In that moment, I realized I had fallen prey to one of the key lessons we teach in our workshops. We tell ourselves stories about people very quickly, and those stories stick. I had formed a model in my head about this participant based on his gender, his age, his race, his body language. That model was influencing how I facilitated—who I made eye contact with, who I called on, how deep to take certain lines of questioning.
And then, one of the people in my mental story who was supposed to be disinterested showed up as a strong ally, making a passionate argument for a concrete way the organization could be more equitable. Meanwhile, the pushback had come from someone I assumed would be an advocate, based on her gender. I had read them both wrong.
I now think of this workshop as a double success story. We had fostered an environment where people could speak freely and honestly, ultimately voicing constructive solutions. The dialogue that opened up here was going to make a difference for their firm.
But there was another learning moment too: my own. It was a reminder to watch out for my own biases.
Even as an anti-bias facilitator, I can never prevent my brain from forming instant stories about people. But now, when I see a group of men settling into the back row with their arms folded, I have a new story to tell.