The jarring time-warp was because I’ve heard almost those exact words before.
On a Monday in late October of 2007, I officially began my career at Texas Instruments. I wasn’t new to TI, as, at the time, I’d interned for the company three times, totaling 18 months. I’d only been gone about three months from my last internship before returning full-time to the same business group. My official start date wasn’t until January, but I was eager to dive in and begged to start just as soon as I finished my thesis.
My first day proved to be a troublesome one for the business group. They’d announced that an entire division was folding, and other divisions would absorb employees. The writing was on the wall for future layoffs, the direction of the business seemed uncertain, and the climate was tense.
Since I returned to the same team, I settled right back into my cube and got to work. I was thrilled! I felt like it was the first day of my grown-up life. After all, that job and the career it promised was why I’d worked so hard.
During a quick run to the restroom, a senior technical manager stopped me in front of the soda machines. Let’s call him Bill. I’d worked with Bill during my internship, and so we knew each other.
With a perplexed look and furrowed brow, he asked, “What are you doing here?” To which I exuberantly responded, “It’s my first day!”
Then, he began slowly moving his head side-to-side, and his face soured. He sneered, “You don’t deserve to be here. You were only hired because you’re a pretty little girl.”
Sure, business changes complicated things, and I understood that, but not enough to warrant this kind of attitude. Conceivably the anticipated reaction was to gush and fawn over the flattery. After all, Bill thought I was little and pretty. Isn’t that what all girls are supposed to want?
However, I’m pretty smart, and I believe TI hired me for more than my gender and looks. The most salient data points at the time were (1) the fact that I would graduate cum laude for my master’s degree in electrical engineering, and (2) that my thesis would later be considered for a patent.
Perhaps, fortunately, I lived most of my life to that point with rose-colored glasses, tarnished only by naivete. I honestly don’t remember how I responded or if I responded at all. However, his words have never left me. His words burned into my memory.
Even though I can’t recall how I reacted, I do know what I did as a result.
I got to work (some of which was directly supporting Bill’s projects), and
I worked hard. Not because he told me I didn’t belong, but because I am a hard worker, and that’s what I do. I did learn, though, that I would need to work ten times harder than the men to be recognized for half as much.
Nearly seven decades separate these interactions, yet they are the same. That’s what was so jolting to me because, as Dr. Holt said the words, I was transported back to the hallway at TI. Sure, it’s nearly 2020 now, but I am confident these incidences still happen every day.
Let’s personalize it. Imagine your skilled and intelligent daughter, grand-daughter, or niece, being told they don’t belong in a profession because they are a woman. Maybe the words aren’t explicitly muttered, but their co-workers think it, and that influences how they treat and promote your loved one.
Explicit bias is easy to identify, like in mine and Retta’s stories. Implicit bias, on the other hand, is more challenging to notice, yet the effects can be far more insidious.
Implicit bias is an unconsciously-held set of associations about a social group. Implicit or unconscious bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases are a result of schemas in our brains.
A schema describes a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them. In our brain, schemas are templates of knowledge, or mental shortcuts, that are unconsciously accessed and applied, sometimes mistakenly. The resulting assignment of schemas is implicit bias.
Rewind to the1940s: Save for the wartime workforce (Rosie’s), women by and large held very traditional and stereotypical roles as homemakers. In her book, Dr. Holt highlights stories of women animators as unsung heroes of early Disney. While these women were fantastic and influential animators, it was, and perhaps still is, a role that defies gender norms. Women like Retta Scott didn’t match the traditional schema for women and careers or the schema for animators.
Stereotypes and gender norms affect the workforce today. For example, nursing remains women (~85%) predominantly, and engineering is mostly men (~85%). Representation of women in other fields like computer science, physics, criminal justice, construction, and manufacturing remains low. And for men, representation in careers like early childhood education, massage therapy, and cosmetology remains low.
Think of the schemas or stereotypes you hold about one or some of the listed careers. You don’t have to believe the stereotype to be true for your brain to access it and influence how you evaluate others or reach decisions about them.
Not fitting his schema, Bill didn’t think I belonged at TI as an engineer, as he shared with me in a very explicit way. However, the countless subtle and unconscious ways he communicates that belief perpetuates the schema and creates an environment exclusive to anything that challenges it.
Thus people who “don’t belong” experience countless macro and micromessages daily that remind them of this schema. These messages may or may not be consciously received.
Now, consider that every individual has a certain amount of cognitive bandwidth to function and manage everything in life, both explicit and implicit tasks.
Our mental bandwidth can be jammed by lots of things. The jam might include the normal litany of stresses from finances, relationships, illness, overflowing to-do lists, and demanding responsibilities. In addition, all of the efforts required (conscious or not) for living what I call a double life also jam our mental bandwidth. We lead a double life when we must function in an environment where we can’t show our whole, true, and authentic self. The threat of not belonging causes us to code-switch from our true identity to a performative character that is more readily acceptable.
The reminder that we don’t belong triggers a sense of scarcity in our brain that we lack the traits that would allow us to fit-in. Defying cultural norms and stereotypes, and the cognitive load questioning whether or not we are succeeding can affect our performance. This is called stereotype threat.
Now, it’s easy to say, “suck it up buttercup,” but that doesn’t work! Most of this is happening in our unconscious mind. As we daily answer the questions, “Can I do this? Do I want to do this?” our brain draws on all the data points and schemas, and that includes the micromessages that remind us we don’t belong.
A fundamental human motive, people want to belong. Belonging uncertainty, according to Walton and Cohen, is when “in academic and professional settings, members of socially stigmatized groups are more uncertain of the quality of their social bonds and thus more sensitive to issues of social belonging.”
Outside of more significant social stereotypes and schemas, the culture and climate of an organization or classroom directly influence one’s sense of belonging. The world may believe as a whole that women are more affiliated with family and men more with careers (70% of 70 million people across the globe hold this implicit bias), but if the people, policies, and norms that make up your company, team, or classroom actively challenge that status quo and truly support women, then you can foster an inclusive environment that allows women to feel like they belong.
Women do belong. Let’s stop making it so difficult.
Don’t want to be like Bill or Retta’s colleague?
Excellent. Let’s work together to create academic and professional settings where everyone belongs. Here’s what you can do:
- Increase awareness of your unconscious biases. Take a few Implicit Association Tests to get started.
- Expand your schemas. Find more stories and images that challenge stereotypes. Watch this short animation to help you better understand schemas.
- Be intentional. As the unconscious becomes more conscious, you’ll begin to recognize how your biases manifest in your interactions. From there, you can take action and adjust. Remember, this is a journey!
- Speak Up. Challenge stereotypes and biased policies/practices, take responsibility if you slip up, and kindly support others in expanding their schemas, too.