Unconscious Bias & the Diversity Debate

Saying & Doing are Different Things

TL;DR; pipeline problems have a cause. They do not exist in isolation.

This is a topic I didn’t expect to enter the debate chamber for, many years ago. I wouldn’t class myself as a diversity activist by any stretch, but the one thing I am really keen on is critical (often scientific) thought and logic reasoning. It is this style of thinking that has changed and advanced the human race, very often in substantial step changes as opposed to the gradual, slow, improvements we make day-to-day. Stupidity is depressing!

Rachel’s excellent and informed article, highlights a number of points. The key takeaway I think folk should consider, if nothing else, is that pipeline problems have a cause. They do not exist in isolation. Entrance to the tech profession is a culmination of at least 18 if not 21 years, or more, of pipeline activity in some form or other. It’s a series of mathematical queues one after the other, which form the big queue (pipeline) that takes someone from birth to a job in tech.

If entrance rates drop for some reason and if egress rates also increase at the same rate, the total pipeline problem is twice what it otherwise would be due to egress alone. This means you’ll empty the pipeline twice as fast as you would do with males, say. In addition, considering even the traditional perspective of influential role models, dealing with the egress rate would help increase the rate of entrance by more than the organic entrance alone.

I’ve worked in many many companies. Some in modern tech, some traditional. There is one thing that stands out amongst them all and that is a level of non-meritocratic behaviour. As Rachel rightly points out, sad but true, people can’t help it. There is an apparent neurological reason for this.Here is a brain:

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Source: McGraw-Hill via Google Images

If you’re neurologist, neuroscientist, neuro-psychologist or even a keen techie into BIMPA, this will not be new to you at all and feel free to correct me if I make a mistake. But for everyone else, the brain is made up of around 80-100 billion neurons at birth, which naturally die at a rate of 5,000 a day, regardless of alcohol consumption in adulthood. Between each neuron is a synapse, which is a a juncture between the [usually] one axon on the source neuron, and a dendrite in each of one or more sink neurons (neurons having up to 1,000 connections have been identified so far). The transfers of information happen through chains of electrical impulses travelling across the surface of neurons, which act to stimulate them and release a neurotransmitter across the synaptic cleft, the gap between the axon and dendrite.

There are many neurotransmitters. 80 or so at the last count, though some sources quote 100. They can either be inhibitory, acting like an electrical insulator or FET transistor or excitatory, stimulating the neuron to build up electrical charge and eventually fire, a bit like how a TTL transistor (or even diode) builds to 0.7V before switching.

The neurotransmitters can and do interact and can do so to create hormones in some cases too, especially through the pituitary gland. There are also synthesis chains which create child neurotransmitters from parent ones. For example, serotonin and noradrenaline do not come from the same chain, whilst dopamine, noradrenaline and adrenaline, do and in that order. It is thought this is why you feel the fight or flight response before getting the adrenaline rush.

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noradrenaline synthesis chain

These behaviours form a complex, interacting, systemic chain of activity that create pathways in the brain that generally split along two lines.

  1. Autonomic Nervous System — controlling involuntary action such as eye dilation, breathing, heartbeat, in conjunction with the neuron-like cells in the heart — yes, they exist in the heart too, but also in the nervous system across the body and the stomach too (which explains my big belly).
  2. Peripheral Nervous System — controlling all the voluntary action, our speach and also what we ‘choose’ to think about.

Generally, whilst the single, localised functions of brain activity are hard to pin down, clusters of neurons in particular regions do appear to carry out functions associated with human existence. Akin to a ‘microservice architecture’ there are dedicated regions of the brain responsible for particular functions. For example, motor function is controlled via the primary motor cortex, a band running almost from ear to ear across the top of your head, where you put your over-your-head headphones. Primary and extra-pyramidal motor cortices are responsible for big movements and find tuning, a bit like software development and application support teams and they are all conscious decisions. Pretty much anything in the ‘gray matter’ in each cortex is conscious.

By contrast the Limbic region, composed of the hypothalamus, thalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus and Cerebellum are completely subconscious. You do not consciously control those parts of your head. That is the ‘animal’ brain if you like and contains the autonomic pathways of sympathetic nervous system neurotransmitters, which are fast acting and that part of your brain acts fast. In addition, because they are active all the time, they are also responsible for creating background electrical current, the alpha and beta waves. The latter also being the connection between autonomic activity and motor control, and thereby resulting from conscious effort to move your arm, or leg. These waves turn into

However, they are not totally independent. As people have been saying for years, it is possible to use your conscious mind to help yourself to relax. Also, you become aware that you are scared or nervous, which are actions that actually start way down in the sympathetic pathways but then move to the para-sympathetic pathways in the peripheral nervous system.

Most people say they would have free will. However, experiments have time and time again shown this appears to be false, with many criticisms of the testing method being put to bed in the meantime, including the introduction of the “free won’t” idea mentioned in the last video link, which appears to be linked to human beta-waves.

This isn’t unexpected. After all, returning to the above, we experience and feel something before we become aware of it or that we’re feeling that way about it. After all, we have to sense something through our eyes, ears, nose, skin or mouth [caaaake!]. We can influence how we react to the sensory experience, but can’t influence the experience of it or receipt of the experience of it unless we crawl under a rock and that just introduces another world of sensory problems. So we can’t stop experiencing.

In addition, the way long-term memories are formed by the creation of new neural connections between neurons, mean that our experiences, which we experience through our senses, shape us. We reinforce them by repeating the same thing time and time again, which just gets us into a cycle of reinforcing it. This is how repeated social conditioning works.

If you’ve read this far, well done! You’ve got the background to get on to the next bit. If not, we’ll you’re not here anyway squire…

Studies have fairly recently shown that babies who cannot communicate to us verbally (or arguably cognitively — jury still out on that one), exhibit racial bias. Note, given what you should have just read above, this does not mean babies are born racist. To have an opinion on something, experience of something to trigger that opinion must happen. Babies, even of a few months old are subject to an environment very much of their parent’s making. If they surround themselves with people exactly the same as them, the babies identify a difference in their context because their brains act to unfamiliarity accordingly. That is a low level human trait that persists into adulthood.

As individuals get older, that dilutes, or if constrained to a local community of very similar phenotypes, reinforces and affects aspects much much wider than the narrow field of study and also creates a ‘comfort zone’of those phenotypes. It’s why when selling, people buy on trust and people trust people just like them when making a sale. It affects everything! From employment, to contracting, to friendships to dating and all tie in to Rachel’s numbers in exactly the same way.

We’ve all heard anecdotal stories of recruitment agents explicitly discriminating against those of a different racial background, despite their explicit wording on job boards that they don’t. Indeed, this came out as a major problem in formal study of UK employment agencies published in 2012. Reading that article, if your numerically savvy, you’ll note the problem is the comment from Tom Hadley, from REC. So to break this down:

  1. The control group were those hired directly by the end clients — These are figures that REC do not have, as they didn’t go through recruitment agencies for the role.
  2. 2,500 data points were take, which is more than enough for statistical significance. So they can’t consider inconclusive results.
  3. The largest makeup are under-55. Hence, to complain about the representation of over-55s still doesn’t change the effect on those under 55, especially where the 35–54 age group is almost exactly the same. You have to be a new kind of idiot.

I could go on, but it doesn’t add to the debate, especially since the recruitment agency industry is a sales industry. Numbers are not their thing. I could probably name several 13-year olds who can outdo REC on stats.

Whilst it’s always prudent to ask people not to jump to conclusions, the reality is that, yet again, there is no need for a recruitment agency to bias the results, as companies as a whole, are not asking them to. Indeed, to do so damages the client as a whole. No great secret that the recruitment agency experience leaves 77% of clients not feeling like they got value for money.

Additionally, the most diverse companies are 3 times more productive and successful than companies which are not. They usually don’t need to use recruitment agencies, as candidates come to them. However, where they do, agencies are again, leaving them less than happy, especially on Preferred Supplier Lists, with some studies citing 77% of clients are left unhappy y the lack of value for money their receive from agency recruitment. But it’s engrained in the psyche and if I ever have to use them to recruit, I feel my heart sink, as I know we are paying for them to do next to nothing. They can’t vet candidates. They can’t spot real experts and talent and certainly can’t vet them. They don’t have the skills. We have to do all that anyway.

There have also been reports of people not fitting the “profile” of more lucrative London based investment banking and quant development roles, despite being more technically and analytically competent than most people there. It even happened to me once and I enjoyed the squirming moment I gave the agent :)

This naturally means that agencies and recruiters, who are just [poor excuses for?] humans, are unable to stop themselves from being prejudicial against candidates of any type, any background and arguably, in any way. Since we have had to introduce laws time and time and time again to kerb their behaviour.

The same is true in companies. HR’s policies and guidelines reactively exist because of the discriminatory nature of our proverbial ancestors. We had to be regulated into submission as a cohort because we couldn’t be responsible for doing it on our own. That’s how laws work. Self-regulate or legislate. Even GitHub had to learn the lesson the hard way. I’d like to know if they did a couple of years on from that.

It leads myself and people like me to argue and advocate for diversity, or at least feel the need to, despite not really naturally being activists. We see many wrongs that many people do not see, simply because they are not in the demographic, and so want to make the world a better place by education, but it’s particularly obvious the vast majority of people do not, nor do they want to listen, even many who claim to not discriminate. What they say, is definitely not what they do.

This means the diversity debate is going to continue and rightly so. I hope we get to the stage of being a meritocracy, since that world will finally make sense and start to head in the right direction. It’ll be the start of the journey, not the end, but the one thing I’ve found is it very definitely is not now. The question is how long can I and others stick it out before I myself leave an industry I grew up in and was quite successful in. I know that day will be heartbreaking! Because by that point, it can go to hell in a bucket as far as I am concerned!


Written by

EA, Stats, Math & Code into a fizz of a biz or two. Founder: Automedi & Axelisys. Proud Manc. Citizen of the World. I’ve been busy

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