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Kimberly Bryant: Break Down Your Biases

About this talk

We all have biases and blind spots, unconsciously affecting the way we collaborate with others. In this talk, Black Girls Code founder Bryant shares how pervasive these biases are in our society and how that hampers our careers and our culture.

“We must take into account this disparity between our intentions and our actions,” she says sharing the story of her own bias while dropping her daughter off at a male-dominated engineering club, worrying about whether she’d be accepted. “That [situation] drove me to look at how that bias impacts how we work in the world,” Bryant said. If we’re to do our best work as individuals and as a society, she says, we must recognize and combat these inclinations.


Kimberly Bryant, Founder & Executive Director, Black Girls Code

Kimberly Bryant is the Founder and Executive Director of Black Girls CODE, a non-profit organization dedicated to “changing the face of technology” by introducing girls of color (ages 7-17) to the field of technology and computer science with a concentration on entrepreneurial concepts.

Kimberly has enjoyed a successful 25+ year professional
 career in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries as an 
Engineering Manager in a series of technical leadership roles
 for various Fortune 100 companies such as Genentech, Merck,
 and Pfizer.

Since 2011 Kimberly has helped Black Girls CODE
 grow from a local organization serving only the Bay Area, to an 
international organization with seven chapters across the
 U.S. and in Johannesburg, South Africa. Black Girls CODE has currently reached over 3,000 students and continues to grow and thrive.

Full Transcript

Good morning, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here with you this morning. And I must say, coming from San Francisco, I had a bit of shock coming uptown in the taxi this morning. And I’ll have to say that there is nothing to give you that message that, Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore. They’re riding in a New York City Taxi in rush-hour traffic. So I almost feel like I– and I have done a few of those Amy Cuddy power poses in the back this morning to calm my nerves. But it’s a pleasure to be able to kick off the conference this morning and talk to you a little bit about the work that I’ve down with Black Girls Code and some of the things we’ve found.

One of the reasons I really wanted to come to this conference after Sean and the team reached out– because I really resonated with this whole theme of the conference of 99U, that whole concept of success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Because, as many of you may also live this yourself, I can relate as a startup founder to that 99% perspiration part. That is my life with these 60-plus hour weeks that we do to bring an idea of the life. But other than being a startup founder and a social entrepreneur, one of my main roles is what I like to call a momiger. And a momiger means that when I’m not doing that 99% perspiration in the office, I’m focused on helping this person that is my 1% or more inspiration, my daughter Kai, who’s 16– figure out what she needs to do on a day-to-day basis. And I wanted to tell you a story about– one day, after one of these 60-hour weeks, my daughter tells me, Mom, I need you to drop me off. She’s in a robotics team and she needed me to drop her off at practice. I’m telling you, after a Friday in the office, my mind is pretty much brain-dead. And I just go into automatic mode. I was like, sure, just get your stuff. Let’s get in the car, let’s go. And I’m driving up from San Francisco to the Oakland Hills to drop her off at this practice for robotics. We finally make it. I’m not really thinking about anything. As she gets ready to jump out of the car, tells me bye– I just happen to glance over at the garage where her teammates are and have a moment of shock. Because Kai,  my daughter, who is a young, 16-year African-American young lady was going into the garage. And all I saw was five other young Caucasian boys tinkering around on something in the garage. And I was like, wait. Are you OK? I mean, are they nice? Are they welcoming? And she looked at me with this surprised [INAUDIBLE] on her face and said, Mom, of course. What do you mean? They treat me well. They treat me fine. They’re perfectly nice. They’re very friendly. But I was like, well, are you sure? And she said, yes. And so she gets out of the car and she starts to walk away. And I still slowly drive away, because I really don’t know if I believe her. So I almost want to park the car and go around and listen at the side of the garage. And as I drove home, I realized at that moment that what I was experiencing was my own bias.

So that dirty little four-letter word that we’re now hearing so much more about– because in my mind’s eye and based on past experiences myself, as an engineer and as a woman and one of the only women of color often in these engineering spaces– when I experienced what I experienced, it was probably and perhaps in that moment a bit different than what my daughter was. I immediately thought, this is not an environment that she would be comfortable in, because often they are not. But in this particular case, it was different. So I recognized at that time, which I already knew, even as a woman of color who talks about these issues from time to time all the time, I experienced bias myself. We’ve all experienced bias. And that drove me to look a little bit more in how that bias impacts how we operate in the world. And I love this quote that says biases are the invisible world we walk through exerting their influence outside of their conscious awareness. There is a fantastic book that came out about two years ago called “Blind Spot.” It’s by two professors, Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. And it’s about the hidden biases of good people. And in the book, they start out with this example from a professor named Roger Shepard. And it’s called turning the tables. And as you look at this picture, raise your hand if you think the tables are the exact same size. Very few people. But what if I was to show you this? These tables are exact, size is the same. But how your mind is registering this picture and translating it from this flat 2D image to a 3D one changes the perception of how you see it. Another example will be similar– look at these two faces. The smaller, upside-down on one versus the others. But are they different? Look at the eyes. They’re exactly the same eyes, but because there is a change in one element, the change is your perspective of what these two pictures are telling us.

So this really demonstrates in these examples how the eyes receive, the brain registers, and the mind interprets visual information. In the context of the table tops, our collective minds in most cases are unable to perceive these pair of objects as they really are. And the professors Banaji and Greenwald called this a mind bug or a blind spot. So for me, in the example with my daughter, my blind spot was that, based on past experiences that I had, I felt without a doubt these fellow teammates would not be treating her in an equal or fair fashion. And I made a judgment of those people and how they interacted.

One of the reasons that we as individuals and humans perceive these things this way is because our brain unconsciously and automatically and even unintentionally tends to pull from experiences that we have to make us see things different than they may actually be in reality. And this is what implicit and unconscious bias– this is what it looks like. But it’s not just in looking at an example like this, where an unconscious bias comes to play. As you can see from my own example, unconscious bias affects every area of our lives. We unconsciously tend to like people who look like us, think like us and come from backgrounds similar to ours. And everyone thinks they’re open-minded and objective– I think that. But the research has shown that we have beliefs that are gained from family culture in a variety of lifetime experiences that heavily influence how we evaluate others as well as ourselves. So we’re fighting in the unconscious bias– both effects that we have gain from evolution as well as from socialization.

But I want to ask– why does this matter as startup funders? And why is this something that we need to be aware of as we build our companies, as we run our companies? This is important, because bias creeps up on us when we least expect it and in many, many contexts, from design to business through society. In the design world, there’s a fantastic professor of sociology named Ruha Benjamin at Princeton University. And has done some groundbreaking work around discriminatory design. She has an essay that she wrote a while back called “Playing The Game Or Hacking The System”. And in this essay, she talks about how studies have shown that there’s implicit racial bias that predicts the amount of shooter bias in a video game. In these video games that most of our kids– maybe even some of us– play, more than half of the African-American characters in the games are unaffected by any violence they actually receive. So you shoot an African-American player in a video game, nothing happens. He dies, but he doesn’t feel or show any emotion. Now, if we look at the intersectionality when you put both race and gender together, the outcomes are even worse. Nine out of 10 African-American females in these same video games are always victims of violence and far more apt to be victimized. Women in general in these videos are never the protagonists– never the protagonists.

So how do these virtual worlds reflect our unconscious bias? How do we bring that into the game? And how do they reinforce our imaginations and trigger and reflect these perceived realities? There’s even examples in business. I think everyone now is probably familiar with the resume tests, where you put two candidates’ similar or exact qualifications, different names. And how much different the response is when there’s a primarily white, Caucasian male name on an application versus one that is more ethnic or even female. I think the most– I don’t know what the right word is for this. But the most shocking examples of how this unconscious bias plays out is when we look at society. In society, there have been studies that show that white people, including police, see black children as older, less innocent than their white counterparts. There’s a UCLA psychological study that actually showed this out in reality. Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and California State University at Northridge reviewed decades of empirical evidence and found that cops an implicit bias, extends to the work that they do. And they found that police officers seem to possess implicit bias that might make them more likely to shoot black suspects rather than white ones. So let’s think– it’s been less than a year now that Tamir was killed and shot by a police officer that thought this young man– this kid, this child– was an adult with a gun. He had a play gun. Do you remember this example? This is what a hoodie looks like in Silicon Valley on one of the most successful, I would saying and most recognizable startup funders. But what does a hoodie look like when an African-American young man wears it? What did that hoodie represent when Trayvon Martin donned it? I pulled this from an article that Cheryl Contee wrote which is titled, “The Difference In Two Worlds of Hoodies”, one with Mark Zuckerberg and one with Trayvon. They even did an article, I believe in “Bloomberg News,” where they asked everyone, what do they feel the impact of marking this trademark hoodie? You see, some people liked it, some people were for and against it. But look at the comments, just take a minute to reflect on these comments, where 4% comparison to Trayvon Martin. And the questions that brought up for people. Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie. Is he considered a thug, too? I wonder if Zuckerberg looked as threatening in his hoodie as Trayvon Martin did.

When we look at these different issues, I think we see the same thing that I represented in my own personal example of my daughter Kai and her robotics team. The effect of this implicit bias that we build from these different experiences and social contexts that invade our mind and cause us to see reality different than it is. One of the things that I always like to point out in our work with Black Girls Code when we started– we were really surprised by the numbers of representation of students in computer science, especially women and women of color. And so often, we hear that there’s an issue with the pipeline, that’s why there are no women, there are no minorities in computer science. And if you look at these numbers on the right, that would tell you that it is so. However, let’s look at the left. If you talk to middle school girls, over 50% of them are interested in computer science. But by the time they enter high school, fewer than 2%– 2% from 50%– have that same interest. So I’m inclined to think something is happening between middle school and high school. And I don’t think it’s all about the victims. I don’t think it’s all about the girls. I think that part of it is the implicit and unconscious bias that they encounter each and every step along their path that tells them, this is a place that they don’t belong. This is a place that they should not exist. This is not a place where they can be successful.

So, how do we change these perspectives? How do we change this bias? How do we break it? Fortunately, for serious minds, a bias recognized is a bias sterilized. I think the first step is recognizing how pervasive these biases are in our society and how we all own them– we all do. There have been efforts, some successful efforts based on this data. There’s a website called Project Implicit that I highly recommend you take a look at, by Professors Greenwald and Banaji, that actually has a bias-taking test in there, that you can actually test– what is your bias? And it uses this test– an IAT test or an implicit association test, where you really compare different images with words. And it assesses how much bias you actually possess as an individual. One organization that’s done a fantastic job of taking that same research and flipping into a cultural perspective that’s really, I think, pretty darn slick, is MTV, with this Look Different project that they did about two years ago. And if you look on YouTube, you’ll see a series of videos where they really smash these stereotypes that often people encounter based on others’ bias and unconscious biases. This is one. And how it feels when someone says, oh, you’re different from a black guy. Or they have one from a Latino student, where his counterpart says, oh, you speak really good to be Hispanic. And they show the student saying, well, I should, because I was born and raised in New Jersey. But there’s so many instances of where this bias comes into play. And it absolutely has an impact. So I really applaud MTV for this work that they are doing to expose that. So if you think of the possibility of what happens when there’s intersectionality, what happens when we bring in race? What happens when we bring in gender? What happens when we bring in sexual orientation to these conversations? And all of the different mind pings and mind bugs that could possibly come into play at that time.

Another way that we have found, as an organization, to counteract this bias is really by building new associations to expose people to a counter-stereotypic image. Because even though there is this tendency to create this meritocracy effect, as Banaji says– in the valley, how perceptions are made about people and their competencies. And so you tend to group people that are in your in-group, those that you relate most closely to, as most competent. But there’s also an impact of the same unconscious bias to people that are on the out group. So in this case, these girls of color who hear images that they do not belong in the IT industry and the technology industry will tend to internalize that themselves. They become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We counter that by showing them that they can. So when you see an image of a computer scientist, you see images that look like this. Dr. Ruha Benjamin calls this breaking the cultural codes and flipping the script– changing the narrative that’s dominant in our society.

Now that I’ve told you all about all the statistics, all the research, I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer first thing in the morning. Because there’s also research that shows that these biases can be broken. These biases can be changed. But I really, truly believe the first step is that we acknowledge that we all have them. We all have them. And look at ways to create a change– a change in that perception, a change in how we respond based on that knowledge. As we go forth and we’re building these companies, I think we have the potential to change the world and make it a better place. And in our country, even though inequality, it no longer looks quite the same as it did 50 years ago and there are no clear vestiges of Jim Crow that remain, there are undeniably instances of inequality that continue to persist. But understanding the effects of the unconscious and implicit bias that we all carry will help us to accept this disparity between our intentions and beliefs– or ideals– and our behavior and actions. I think it really takes a leap from moving from sympathy to empathy to transcend our tendency to other– and to look at those that don’t really look like us and that we don’t really relate to as different. It takes a conscious decision to deflect and block our unconscious bias and a bit, I would say, of bravery to admit as humans, even with the best intentions, we are undeniably but not irreparably flawed.

Diversity, inclusion– in a fair society, it belongs to all of us. And this is a shared humanity that we must stop looking at others outside of ourselves as the cause of the problems or the people that need to change so that we can create a more fair and just society. Diversity and inclusion belongs to all of us. And I strongly believe that the most effective revolutions will start when we address these issues that occur in our mind. I think MTV, this last video, pretty wraps it up quite well. Eyes up. Don’t shoot. Eyes up. Don’t shoot. Hands up. Don’t shoot. Hands up. Don’t shoot. Hands up. Don’t shoot. Hands up. Don’t shoot. Hands up. Don’t shoot. Hands up. Thank you.

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