Guide: Evaluate subtle messages

Introduction

There are many subtle ways humans signal and cue one another. In some cases unconscious biases can influence the signals sent, sometimes in the form of negative cues that researchers call “micro-inequities.” Repetitive exposure to these instances can add up over time and drastically affect someone’s feelings of belonging and worth.

Physical cues can also have a significant impact on an individual’s feelings of inclusion and their likelihood to engage in a particular activity. Research shows how individuals see themselves reflected in their surroundings (or the lack thereof) can have physiological and cognitive effects. In this particular study, participants were asked to watch a video of a conference with a male-dominated audience. Researchers tracked significant increases in the stress levels of female viewers, as well as a lower sense of belonging and interest in conference participation than those who watched a video with a more gender-balanced audience. When thinking about building a workforce, conference panels, or event attendee lists Google wants to be cognizant of representation and thoughtful about what unintentional signals might be present and the message that's sending.

A different study showed that physical environment can actually influence an individual's interest in pursuing a certain career path or line of work. In this study, researchers asked undeclared underclassmen about their interest in computer science. They found that the decorations of the room itself where the students participated could influence their stated interest. When the room was adorned with stereotypically “geeky” items (Star Trek posters and video games) women were significantly less likely to express interest in computer science than when the room had more neutral (nature posters and phone books) decorations.

This is not to say that you should create equally unwelcome environments for everyone, but it's important to consider how workplaces might alienate certain groups or send subtle message that only certain types of people are welcome. This didn't mean Google threw out the Legos, Star Wars posters, or Nerf guns. But Google is encouraging employees to be thoughtful about workplace design and decoration.

Guide: Evaluate subtle messages

Start unbiasing the workspace

Research shows that one's environment can have an impact on personal experience. When Google opened a new office in 2013, all of the conference rooms were named after famous scientists. But Googlers who moved into the building quickly noticed that fewer than 10 of the 65 conference rooms were named after female scientists. Surely in designing a space for computer scientists of all genders the team could do better. So Googlers took it upon themselves to rename the rooms, and now half of the rooms honor women who have made scientific contributions throughout history.

Even small, intentional changes can make a difference in how welcoming and inclusive your workspace is for everyone.

A conference room with the room named Praskovya Uvarova formerly known as Peter K. Homer]

Guide: Evaluate subtle messages

Write inclusive job descriptions

Job descriptions are likely the first thing future employees will read about your organization, and may contain subtle messages about what your organization values. By using gendered language or not thinking through the minimum qualifications you’re looking for, you can unintentionally discourage qualified candidates.

This happened to Google when looking for a Global Creative Director in Marketing. One of the minimum qualifications listed was: "12 years of experience in a world class creative agency leading creative for iconic global brands." The sad truth is that only 3% of advertising creative directors are women. There’s even a conference about this problem in advertising aptly called The 3% Conference. The Huffington Post appropriately called it out, and Google took immediate action to make sure job descriptions attract as many qualified candidates as possible. Keeping your job descriptions free of superlatives and relative language is a good precaution against inadvertently discouraging otherwise qualified candidates from even applying.

Guide: Evaluate subtle messages

Change the expectations

There is a big push worldwide to get more students to pursue an education in computer science (CS), particularly girls and minorities, who have historically been underrepresented in the tech industry. Today, women make up just 18% of computer science degrees, down from 37% twenty years ago. To understand why, Google commissioned a study to identify the primary drivers that motivate young women to pursue computer science.

Based on Google's research, one of the reasons girls and underrepresented minorities are not pursuing CS is because of the negative perception of computer scientists and the relevance of the field beyond coding. Dispelling stereotypes and showcasing positive portrayals of underrepresented minorities in tech, can help make CS more appealing to a wider audience.

Following this research, Google is crafting strategies to change perception of CS and make it more accessible to all students. Google has been working with Hollywood studios and writers to help create positive CS storylines and diverse CS role models into content - using unbiasing strategies when making creative and business decisions. In 2015 Google teamed up with ABC Family and the creators of The Fosters to help create a storyline about the Latina teenaged daughter, Mariana, learning to code.

Unconscious biases are formed not only by personal experiences, but are also heavily influenced by images and representations in media. For Google, it’s critical to encourage more diversity in technology, both from a business and a moral perspective.