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How Unconscious Bias Might Be Keeping You from Your Dream Job

The lack of women in the cybersecurity and IT professions is no great mystery. According to one study, only about 13 percent of all cybersecurity professionals are women, despite increased efforts to attract young women to the field and improve STEM education starting as early as elementary school.

There are a number of theories as to why women aren’t filling IT roles. “Hacker culture,” which generally involves late nights and social isolation, is often blamed for the dearth of women. Women often struggle to fit in and succeed in such a male-dominated field, and therefore are more reluctant to enter it in the first place. A number of programs and organizations are committed to changing that, and cybersecurity education programs are becoming more inclusive, but the number of women in IT continues to climb rather slowly.

Beyond issues with culture and training, there is another factor reason women aren’t filling IT roles — and in fact, it effects just about everyone in every industry. Male or female, there’s a good chance that you’ve encountered unconscious bias.

What is Unconscious Bias?

No one wants to be biased. The idea of discriminating against any other person for anything — their sex, race, religion, political views, educational achievement, anything — is unpleasant and socially unacceptable. However, almost everyone has biases that influence how he or she interacts with others and makes decisions.

Human biases stem from schemas, or frameworks that we use to interpret and make sense of the world. A simple schema, for example, is the concept of a cat. Most everyone knows what a cat is, so whether the four-legged creature with a tail is gray or orange, we subconsciously categorize it as a cat.

As we have different experiences with the world, we develop schemas that are more complex; for example, we develop our own definitions or expectations of concepts like “friend,” or “leader.”

So what does this mean when looking for a job? Well, when a hiring manager (or a team of interviewers) has a particular schema for the person who should fill the role, and you do not fit that mold, they may overlook you. In other words, if a company is hiring a cybersecurity expert, and you turn in a resume highlighting your experience with your university sorority and your runner-up status in a pageant, there’s a chance that you will be eliminated from consideration because you don’t fit the accepted mold of a “hacker” — even if you have extensive experience in the field.

Right now, you’re probably thinking,” “But that’s not fair! Just because I was in a sorority doesn’t mean I don’t know my stuff.” And you’re right. It isn’t fair, especially since unconscious bias often rears its ugly head based on little more than a name, an address, or an alma mater. The good news is that many companies recognize the issue of unconscious bias, and have begun training employees to recognize their own biases and implementing policies designed to overcome their effects.

For example, many companies have implemented multi-tiered review approaches to involve multiple people in the hiring process. Posting more specific job descriptions and training interviewers to understand the specific qualities required for the job are also important to a more equitable hiring process.

What Applicants Can Do

While employers are taking steps to remove unconscious bias from their hiring processes, applicants can avoid falling victim to others’ schemas by:

  • Using your full, given name instead of a nickname. While everyone might call you Katie, Katherine sounds more professional. You can revert to your nickname when you land the job.
  • Removing your address. In fact, some argue that there is no need to reveal your street address until you land the job for security reasons. However, if you feel that people will judge you based on your neighborhood (good or bad) just list your social media accounts and email contact.
  • Focusing on the skills and experience necessary for the job. Remember, you are selling yourself, so highlight your most relevant experience, and show how it aligns with the company’s needs. Remember, you don’t have to list every job you have ever had, just the 3-5 most recent, so no need to mention that you worked at a small-time restaurant.
  • Avoiding information that provides clues to your race, religion, or political affiliations, unless they are relevant to the job.

Because it’s impossible to know anyone else’s biases, you may not be able to prevent being judged on things that you cannot change. However being aware of the potential for bias, and adjusting your applications accordingly, will help prevent you from being taken out of the running before you even get started, no matter what industry you work in.

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