Nicola Mendelsohn: We're all guilty of unconscious bias

The Facebook bigwig says we need to have some hard conversations if we're going achieve equality.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 18 Oct 2016

‘Don’t kid yourself. We’re all guilty of unconscious bias,’ says Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s vice president for EMEA and one of the most powerful British women in tech.

‘Research tells us that three quarters of us instantly associate the word "man" with "work" and the word "woman" with "family". Success in men is attributed to innate brilliance. Success in women is attributed to hard work or luck.’

Speaking at the FT’s Women At the Top event today, Mendelsohn points to two recent examples of unconscious bias at the Rio Olympic Games. When Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu obliterated the world record in the 400-metre individual medley, NBC panned the camera to her cheering husband and coach Shane Tusup and said, ‘There’s the man responsible!’ And the BBC praised Andy Murray for becoming the first person to win two tennis golds – forgetting the Williams sisters’ four medals each.

‘These biases affect us all the time: when we’re recruiting; when we’re managing; and when we’re promoting,’ says Mendelsohn.

‘I’d love to say that Facebook gets everything right but our workforce is still dominated by men. We only have 17% of women in tech and engineering roles, and 27% of women in senior roles. But we’ve vowed to do something about it. Culture is the thing that changes attitudes, behaviours and outcomes – it’s better than any rule, policy or target. That’s why we have to invest so much in it. We can use culture to rewrite the code for women.’

Facebook tried to find a training course that would tackle unconscious bias within the company. When it couldn’t find one, it developed its own. ‘99% of managers at Facebook have taken the course, even though it’s not mandatory. It is designed to make people feel uncomfortable, not because we like to see people squirm but because it’s an important step in self awareness.’

Mendelsohn says that everyone at Facebook is encouraged to have ‘hard conversations’. ‘Every time I see my boss Sheryl Sandberg, she asks: "When was the last time you had a hard conversation?" If you store up those hard conversations, they become really difficult, really personal and very tense on both sides. We won’t change anything unless we learn to tackle tricky issues head on.’

Take pay rises, for example. Mendelsohn admits that she walked into her first ever pay review ‘completely unprepared’. She was given a very small pay rise (substantially less than her male peers) and all she could say was ‘thank you’. ‘That’s not the advice I’ll be giving my daughter!’

She also recalls the conversation she had with her old boss when she found out she was pregnant with her third child. ‘His response was: "How many more times are we going to have this conversation, Nicola?" He thought it was appropriate to write into my contract the gap I was allowed between the birth of my children. I left. He stayed. I’m glad and proud that would never happen at Facebook. We support our staff at all stages of their life and try to remove the barriers that would stop them from progressing in their careers. That’s what motivated us to offer all our employees, men and women, four months’ parental leave.’

Mendelsohn became the IPA’s first female president in 2011 – but bemoans the fact there hasn’t been another woman in the role since. ‘Until there are male and female candidates for the position every year, we can’t claim to have tackled the issue,’ she says. ‘Whenever we appoint a FTSE female CEO or have a woman at the top of a business, it’s seen as a once-in-a-generation moment or a rare celestial event that we ponder and applaud for 24 hours before getting on with our own lives. That needs to stop. Attitudes need to change.’

MT will be tackling the theme of unconscious bias at our Inspiring Women event on 16 November. Guest speakers include top chef Angela Hartnett, TalkTalk CEO Dido Harding and Propercorn founder Cassandra Stavrou. Read more here. Or, for a selection of top stories delivered straight to your inbox, sign up to our Inspiring Women Bulletin.

Image credit: DFID/Flickr

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