Let's challenge your unconscious career bias

Let's start with the basic question. What is unconscious bias? 

So, what does this have to do with how you think about your career? The answer is everything.

We all hold deep unconscious biases towards the world of work and how we believe we fit into it. We use these biases to simplify and draw boundaries on what we see is possible for ourselves and those around us. These biases can often have a powerful impact on our thinking and have the tendency to hang around unchallenged with us thinking of them as 'just the ways things are'.

I want to encourage you to take a step and reflect. Let's question what are your unconscious career biases and how do they impact your career decision making and what you think is possible for yourself and for others? 

  • Challenge their validity
  • Question their implications
  • Explore their opposite proposition

One of my favourite vocational psychology theories is by Linda Gottfredson who looked at the process that we all go through as young people to eliminate occupational alternatives from our 'what's possible for me' list. The theory highlights four stages where we begin to eliminate options and form unconscious biases. I have taken a little bit of creative liberty with the titles but the stages are basically: 

  • 'That's an adult job'Stage 1 is estimated to occur between the ages of 3-5 when we form the bias that there are big powerful adult roles and kids roles.
  • 'That's a women's job'. Stage 2 is estimated to occur between the ages of 6-8 when we form gender biases that there are female roles and male roles.
  • That job's more important than that one'. Stage 3 is estimated to occur between the ages of 9-13 as we form the bias that some jobs are more important and valid than others.
  • 'That's a job for me'. Stage 4 is estimated to occur after 14 as we begin the journey of marrying our internal sense of self with the world of work.

Whether or not these ages or stages are exact it is interesting to reflect on your own early recollections about when/how your unconscious biases were formed. To help you to think about your own journey here are three questions and some interesting resources to challenge you to think a little more critically about your own biases. It is only when you know what they are that you can start to rewire how you think and make your biases work for you! 

1 - think of Certain job and the person performing it. Do you see them as being a certain gender? 

It is often as early as primary school that most of us start to link certain jobs with certain genders. This video is a great example of how we can find ways to challenge our unconscious gender career biases.

So, close your eyes and think of a job or career you're interested in pursuing. Picture someone doing that job and describe what they look like? Now it's time to think critically. Where has that picture come from? Why do you automatically picture a certain gender in that role? Take some time to ask yourself: 

  • Where have my career gender assumptions come from? 
  • Are these gender assumptions valid in todays world?
  • What are the implications of my gender biases? Do they limit what I believe what is possible for myself or for others? 
  • What does the opposite bias look like? Can I explore the opposite viewpoint to see if I discover a new way of thinking? Is there some merit in dispelling this bias? 

One of the coolest examples I have seen of an educational initiative that totally subverts gender stereotypes is Skateistan! Click on the picture to learn more about their work in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa. 

2 - Do you have a preconceived notion of what your career is meant to look like? 

Do you see your career as having to have a certain arc or trajectory for it to be a 'success'?

In the modern world (through all forms of media) we are crammed full of messages as to what 'success' looks like and what we should be doing in order to 'fit in'. We need to be critical of these because a lot of them are romanticised, unrealistic and sometimes plain old B*** S***! Whether it's that you believe there is one perfect job or passion out there for you to find, or the notion that you do or don't deserve success. We need to be careful how these biases can set us up for unnecessary failure simply due to the fact that our career may end up looking a little different. I love this TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson. He is a great speaker and such an inspiring voice in education. I particularly like how he encourages each of us to challenge how many of us think about our careers as a linear process. 

After watching this hopefully you are now thinking a little differently about your career arc. Even so, it doesn't hurt to stop and think a little more deeply. Ask yourself: 

  • Where did my notion of success and what my career is meant to look like come from?
  • Are the above notions and assumptions valid or fair?
  • What are the implications of this notion of success and the trajectory I feel like I must follow? Is this bias limiting what I see what is possible for myself? Will I ever be able to live up to this unconscious bias or will I always be one step away from 'success' or chasing my tail?
  • What would the opposite bias look like? If I was to explore the opposite viewpoint what do I discover? Is there some merit in dispelling this bias? 

"Life is not linear, it's organic. We create our lives symbiotically as we explore our talents in relation to the circumstances they help to create for us. The pinnacle for us is getting to college." Sir Ken Robinson

3 - Where has your bias as to What jobs are more important/honourable/impactful than others come from? 

A doctor is more important than a nurse.  

Being a CEO is a more honourable profession than being a garbageman.

If I become a scientist I will have a greater impact than if I become an artist. 

With the rise of superstar startups, celebrity culture and the race to find full-time work as young people we are constantly surrounded by stories that shape the value judgements we make on different jobs and careers. We're wired to form a 'hierarchy of importance job scale' as we compare different jobs by metrics such as their social impact or income potential and rank them against one another. This can he helpful in guiding your choices as you look to make an impact in your work life, but they can also be a harmful and untrue that if left unquestioned will stop you from pursing career options that may be a great fit for you.

I love the quote by Sir Ken that "human communities depend upon a diversity of talent not a singular conception of ability". The world would be a boring place if we all became CEO's, data scientists and celebrities. Every job has a space and is important in the complex communities and societies we've created. I hope to assure you that you are good enough and that your job is important. This also applies to how we think about unpaid, volunteer and family roles. These count as part of your career. 

It's only when we start to question our unconscious biases towards what we have been programmed to believe is 'impactful/honourable/secure work' that we can start to explore more objectively and make more considered/authentic career decisions. If you need anymore inspiration to questions your 'job hierarchy of importance scale' here is a funny little video. I love how diverse the answers are. It makes me realise how important it is that we all have the opportunity to value and pursue different career pathways. 

Finally, a person that I find really inspiring in this space is Chris Guillebeau. He began The Art of Non Conformity, is an avid writer (best selling author and blogger), traveller and has built a community of people all around the world who are interested and value living unconventional lives. I like the way he lays out his philosophy and I think these four point can be helpful when you start questioning what your career 'should look like'. These are:

  1. You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect
  2. You can do good things for yourself and help other people at the same time
  3. If you don’t decide for yourself what you want to get out of life, someone else will end up deciding for you
  4. There is usually more than one way to accomplish something

I really enjoyed the podcast of him speaking to Rich Roll about writing, where his philosophy came from and how he built 'The Art of Non Conformity' blog and community. 

That's a wrap!

Have you discovered any of your own unconscious career biases? Care to share?

Let's talk - I would love to hear if this has made your think more deeply about your own career path or that of someone you love. Write to me at hello@careerset.org