Systemic Biases

This post may get a little controversial. I recently re-published a post that I wrote in 2011 discussing the career benefits of being an early riser and starting your business day at 7am. (6:30 is the new 7am!)

Generally, I received positive comments on the post, but a couple of comments pushed me back on my heels and got my questioning myself as to whether I have harmful unconscious systematic biases.

In the working world today, there is a lot of discussion about diversity and equality. It is well researched that our systematic biases affect how we view others, who we hire, who we promote and so on. In the previous post, I argue that developing the discipline to get up early to be in the office before 7am has significantly contributed to my career success because it gave me access to senior leaders that I would otherwise not have had access to.

The comments that pushed me back on my heels were critical of the fact that not everyone has the flexibility to make these decisions. Two-career couples with young families and single parents are often constrained by the schedules of daycare and the need to be active participants in their children’s lives. This got me critically thinking about my post and questioning my biases.

In particular, re-reading two paragraphs bothered me:

As I moved into more senior roles, my go-to team were the people whom I interacted with between 7am and 9am. They got more of my attention and I relied on them more. They got opportunities others didn’t. If they performed, they got promoted faster.

7am causes you to form impressions about people. For a while in my career, I had responsibility for an organization in Montreal. I used to get up at 5am or before to catch to 6:30 flight from Toronto which landed at 7:30 and got me into the Montreal office at 8. It bothered me that I was usually the one opening the office and putting on the first pot of coffee.

Have I been guilty of introducing a deep seated, unconscious systematic biases into my evaluation of others?

To contextualize this question, let me share some background. I graduated at age 24, got married but my wife and I did not start our family until age 29. This gave me a few years without the constraints of young children to focus on my career. At that time, that we started our family, we decided to support ourselves on one salary and my wife focused on managing the family. Our life was the insanity of trying to make it work with the demands of four small children, a tight budget and not enough hours in the week. As our children got older, their demands on us and our time changed. This allowed for more flexibility to focus on career but also greater financial demands that necessitated it.  Fortunately, and with some luck, we made it work and 38 years later, we are still happily married with four grown children who are embarking on their careers. As I watch my children’s careers, I see and hear echoes from my past.

That was then. Two career families were common but maybe not for the same economic necessity as today. Although I remember a $125,000 mortgage seemed pretty daunting when I was only making $35,000 per year and interest rates were 18%. So, are the views shared in my last post still relevant for the business world today or am I a dinosaur?

Unfortunately, if I am a dinosaur, I still see many others in the senior leadership landscape in the business world who share my perspectives, possibly making the same decisions I made, possibly based on unconscious systemic biases.

One of the few advantages of getting old is that you gain perspective and reflect from a vantage point of having seen a lot. One observation that I have made (as a gross generalization) is that often where people have risen to senior leadership roles, they have had the benefit of a support system around them that gave them the flexibility to focus to achieve that success. In my case, my wife stepped back from her profession as a teacher to give me the freedom to pursue my career. In my generation, this was too often the wife that stepped back but in cases of others I have worked with, the husband stepped back to allow their wife to achieve her career success.

At a recent lunch with a young woman that I am mentoring, she was relating the insanity of her life. Both her and her husband are pursuing aggressive career aspirations while raising a family of two very young children. Her observation was that she and her husband were rare amongst their friends whom have decided to have one of the partners step back so the other can go all-in on their career.

But what if you don’t have this flexibility or what if you are a single parent? Are you being left out of “the club” because your situation doesn’t allow you to be at work at 7am? Is this any different than the “Old Boys Network” of business deals made on golf courses or in locker rooms? FYI, with four kids, I never had the time or money to learn to golf well, so I have also been shut out of that part of business life.

I think over my business career that I have been fair to most of the people that have worked for me and regardless of my potential unconscious biases, have been successful in promoting their success. As part of the tech world, I have always worked for companies that promoted diversity and I have been on teams that were more gender balanced than the industry norm so I think that perspective has helped me as a leader.

I don’t have an answer to the questions that are floating around in my head. I would be interested in your perspective.

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