On bias

Last week saw the second month of my employment at Microsoft. I admit that I’m enjoying my job, and I can’t deny that the reduced amount of time I’ve spent on social media has helped.

Last week also saw the second user group meeting of 2022 for the Calgary Data User Group, which I co-founded in 2018. We had my friend and MVP, Melody Zacharias, present on the various ways to migrate data to Azure.

At one point it became clear to me that while I might imagine that I’m the same person I was two months ago, perceptions of me have changed. I am now a Microsoft employee. All the effort I put in over the years of being independent and balanced has dissolved. I now need to speak in disclaimers and disclosures before expressing an opinion.

Which is not to say that I have a problem with doing so. I must inform people of my potential bias. Not doing so would be unethical. I have already declined an invitation to participate in a focus group because of a potential conflict of interest.

Conflicts of interest are sneaky because they might be real or perceived. You can control one but not the other.

Thabo Mbeki, the first of two Presidents to be recalled by the ruling political party in South Africa, once spoke of crime as a perception problem. He felt that crime levels were not as bad as people perceived, but because crime was in the news and people were talking about it, it made no difference either way.

Bias is sneaky for the same reason. I may consider myself a fair and balanced person, but my implicit biases already change that perception within myself. And now, with the heft of the Microsoft name behind me, I can no longer be thought of as fair and balanced. Of course, I’m going to toe the company line. Of course, I’m going to tell people how wonderful Microsoft products are because my retirement comfort level depends on the stock price, and as far as the rest of the world is concerned, money is a great motivator for behaviour. Every person has their price.

Why is this interesting and worth your time to read it? Because it all comes back to us being easily convinced about something based on a feeling or perception. Assumptions, beliefs, even our affiliations (corporate, political, or personal), affect our biases.

Last week, which was a busy week if my blog post is any indication of current events, my friend Cathrine Wilhelmsen wrote a stark, terrifying, gut-wrenching post about a stalker who followed her to a conference. That is stark, terrifying, and gut-wrenching enough, until you read how Cathrine had to go into detail, publicly, about this person and what they did to her, and why she feels unsafe. That despite the conference having a Code of Conduct (your conference should always have a Code of Conduct), she was still expected to explain herself to the organizers to have the stalker removed.

This is where bias and perception show up. What do I mean by that? The stalker is someone known to many of us in the community. It turns out that our SQL Server family includes creeps, and even someone as well-respected as Cathrine has to defend herself in the face of her abuser. Because when we know the people involved, it’s much harder for us to set aside our biases. It’s difficult to be rational because we’ve never seen untoward behaviour from the abuser. The abuser never hurt us. The abuser has been nothing but kind to us.

I expect some of you will roll your eyes and say, “it’s just one bad apple,” but it isn’t. It isn’t because if we don’t talk about these creeps, these stalkers, these abusers, they won’t stop. If nothing is done, or we pretend to do something but hope it goes away, someone will get hurt, or worse.

One of the greatest traits of humanity — along with community and the ability to invent an entire planetary network to spread jokes about cats — is empathy. To be empathetic means to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else, imagine life from their point of view, and hopefully reconsider our perceptions.

So, for this week, I would encourage you to examine your biases. Examine your perceptions. Really think about them. Then, believe women. Truly believe them. Finally, listen.

That’s a great place to start.

(Image credit: KC Green)

One thought on “On bias”

  • I was discussing transparency in our community very recently: My very reactionary lizard brain feels like it should be a solved problem. There a number of considerations I am sure I am probably missing but I really want to work on this…

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