Steps we can take to #BreakTheBias

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We all have biases. Recognizing that is the first step towards breaking them. That was Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi’s first point in a recent presentation to VCH physicians and UBC medical residents and students. Her address took place on March 8—International Women’s Day—whose theme this year was #BreakTheBias.

“Bias impacts hiring, promotion, career development and trajectories,” said Dr. Golnaraghi, an award-winning equity and inclusion expert. “The pandemic has exacerbated gender inequity. Women physicians not only experience the pandemic as physicians but are also living it as women. Women’s work is impacted more then men’s for a variety of reasons, leading to a higher burnout rate. We have been talking about bias for quite some time. Talking isn’t enough. We need to act.”

Women represent more than half of all medical students. Health care is a female dominated sector: most nurses are women and 44 per cent of Canada’s physicians are women. That percentage is expected to climb to be an even split by 2023. Women are not a niche.

Bias, Dr. Golnaraghi pointed out, can be subtle in our day-to-day environment. Women are more likely to be interrupted in meetings, have others talk over them or take credit for their ideas, and women experience more argumentative challenging and over-critiquing of their work.

Bias and unconscious bias

Bias is a preference for or against a thing, a person, or a group compared with another. Unconscious biases are mental shortcuts that our brains use to make sense of the world and our decisions. Regarding inclusion, it refers to how we may treat others, especially people who may not be like us.

“Unconscious bias can show up in three ways: how we treat others; how others treat us; and how we treat ourselves,” said Dr. Golnaraghi. “When we meet someone, in under a second, our unconscious brain will categorize that person into ‘they’re like me’ or ‘they’re not like me.’ Research shows we have unconscious biases around gender, race, job function, sexual orientation, gender identify, family status, language ability, height, attractiveness, religion, and the list goes on.”

Unconscious bias can limit professional opportunities at key decision points. Therefore it’s important to #BreakTheBias.

“When negative bias comes our way, we aren’t aware that it’s happening. We may internalize it; we may believe it,” Dr. Golnaraghi pointed out. “These negative messages cause us to lean out instead of leaning in. It causes us sometimes to self-censor. It can cause us to feel imposter thoughts as well.”

An intersectional lens

We all have multiple intersectional identities that profoundly shape our experiences at work. Intersectionality is when different types of discrimination interconnect and overlap. There is a compounding effect, for instance, in being a woman, a racialized immigrant, and from a religious minority. Research shows that people with three or more marginalized identities often face the greatest barriers.

We are must susceptible to falling into bias under three circumstances:

  1. When we receive a lot of information, data, and inputs.
  2. When we make decisions with feelings over facts.
  3. When we are under time constraints and need to make quick decisions.

“We look for information that confirms our beliefs,” explained Dr. Dr. Golnaraghi. “We also like to believe that our feelings are factual. In absence of information, our brains fill in the blanks. And our instincts are to act quickly or sometimes we are under time constraints.”

These biases can manifest in different ways that create barriers within our workplaces. Examples include the glass ceiling (an invisible barrier that prevents women from ascending into leadership), the broken rung (the biggest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership is at the first step up to manager), and the leadership labyrinth (a maze of challenges that must be traversed to be successful leaders).

“We’re seeing a trend that’s been amplified by the pandemic that women physicians are cutting back and some are quitting because of lack of flexibility, workplace experiences, and the lack of equitable advancement opportunities, and pay in equity.”

Ways we can act

Neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to create change—means we can overcome our unconscious biases.

“When we recognize a bias, we can take action by creating new habits,” encouraged Dr. Golnaraghi. “Neuroplasticity gives us hope to reframe how we think about bias and what we can do to have a positive impact.”

Women can take these tangible actions:

  • Learn about the different types of bias so you recognize when they are happening.
  • Plan out what you will say when bias comes your way.
  • Apply strategies to reframe imposter thoughts and counter internalized bias.
  • Grow positive relationships: find allies and be an ally.
  • Self-care to navigate the emotional tax.

“Change does not come in the form of checklists or webinars,” added Dr. Golnaraghi. “When women look at different levels, do they see themselves reflected? Do you have access to senior mentors and sponsors? Do policies have flexibility in terms of schedules and parental leave? Are women of colour paid equitably and promoted at a meaningful rate? Are we investing in career development and providing coaching? What is the gender and racial literacy of our leaders? Are there processes and resources for investigating racism and discrimination at work without the fear of consequences and retaliation? Change happens when we make the work deeply personal and commit to action.”

The VCH DEI Committee is taking important steps on this long-term journey that will ultimately lead to structural and systemic change in our health authority. Members are working to create an environment where all female medical staff have a sense of belonging. VPSA is proud of its work that was the genesis for this committee and is pleased to offer ongoing support in terms of sessional funding for its members who are part of the team. The committee and its working groups are currently seeking members. If interested, please click here for the application form.

Dr. Golnaraghi will give an online workshop on Breaking the bias: Tapping into the power of your voice at work on April 13. This special opportunity is limited to 40 VCH women physicians and those who identify as women. For more information and to register, click here.

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