Unconscious bias from the other side

Alice MoncasterThis is a story about a multi-national project I have been a part of for the last five years, developing policy and industry guidance on how to reduce embodied carbon from buildings. The project has taught me three important lessons, only one of them about carbon.

The multi-national project is Annex 57 of the Energy in Buildings and Communities (EBC) programme of the International Energy Agency (IEA); subtask 4 of the Annex happens to be all women. This happened slightly by chance and slightly, I suspect, by subconscious design, and I’ll explain how.
At the start of the project the participants to Annex 57 could choose which sub-task they wanted to work on. Harpa (an Icelandic working in Denmark), Tove (from Sweden), Aoife (Irish but working in Norway) and me (from and working in the UK) decided to work on subtask 4. Perhaps this task didn’t look very high-powered or glamorous to our colleagues, who split up into other subtask groups or none at all. Perhaps we grouped together as a subliminal appreciation of the rare opportunity to work with others of our own sex, and indeed age. I don’t know.

Once this group had formed, other women who joined the Annex wanted to join us, and of course we allowed them. Additional researchers joined in from our own institutions who also happened to be female, including importantly and lastingly, Freja from Denmark. This was all fine with our male colleagues on Annex 57, who called us ‘the ladies’, and seemed to find us slightly amusing, hard-working and perhaps a little, well, dull.

However my story of inadvertent bias becomes a bit more thorny as it goes along. At the project meeting halfway through the project there was a subtle change. At this point the presentations from the subtasks to the whole group started to focus necessarily not just on brilliant ideas, but on what they had actually achieved. Subtask group 4 had requested some time for a break-out session in order to use more of our precious time to work together. To our surprise at this session we were suddenly approached by a number of (male) colleagues wanting to join us. One in particular (well-meaning, and who shall therefore remain anonymous) also really felt the urge to tell us what we should be doing differently and, in his view, rather better. Politely but firmly (some of us firmer than others) we told him that our work was too far progressed for his advice to be useful, and that he was not welcome to join our group at this late stage.

Now we have arrived almost at the end, and we are producing our final report. It has been a difficult but supportive process. All of us are too busy to really fit it in with our every day work, but we have stuck with it through a sense of shared responsibility, and have made huge efforts to attend meetings in each of our countries as well as by Skype either around school pick-up times (all of us happen to have children, with two subtask 4 babies born during the project) or from home (children, dogs and partners in the background). What we have succeeded in producing is a ground-breaking piece of academic research providing a unique and truly global snapshot of embodied carbon methods and mitigation strategies. Personally we have moved from mutual respect to firm friendship. Our remaining unresolved conundrum is which order to list the report authors: unlike the other subtask groups, each led by a single (male) academic, ours has four leaders, Harpa, Tove, Aoife and me.

I have learnt a great deal about reducing embodied carbon from buildings, but perhaps more importantly I have learnt how a collective, collaborative working style can produce amazing results against all odds. The third lesson, though, is a little more thought-provoking; this is, how unconscious bias can work in all of us.

I must stress that we didn’t set out to be an all female group. We didn’t consciously look for female researchers to join us. And we didn’t deliberately discriminate against our male colleague when he tried to join. I’m not really apologising. I’m just noticing the potential insidious mechanisms of subconscious bias, for once on the other side of them. I suspect most of the reasons why we still have all-male boards, and a mostly male industry, are for very similar, and similarly unintentional, reasons.

So the reflection for my industry and academic colleagues is this; it might be more comfortable to work with people like you. It might be easier to see their strengths, if they are the same as yours. You might find that teamwork goes well, with everyone getting along easily together, both in work and socially. But in staying safe, staying homogeneous, you may be missing the chance to benefit from someone who is, and thinks, differently, and in doing so you are missing the chance to do the very best you can. This is why organisations with diversity at a senior level have been unequivocally shown to do better. A little voice inside me tells me that some, not all, of our male colleague’s comments were right, and we could perhaps have done things even better if we had allowed ourselves to listen to a different voice.

Alice Moncaster

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