Marisela Cerda sat down for her annual review, excited to learn how she had done for the year, hoping for a promotion and a big bonus.
Her boss at her job in Microsoft sat down in front of her on a Friday in June, looked her in the eyes, and said something that would alter the course of her life. “Marisela, you need to hear four things: You talk too much, you need to use fewer words, to listen more, and to stop interrupting others.”
His audacity floored Cerda, but it wasn’t entirely unexpected.
“I have to confess, over the last four years, I’ve heard exactly the same feedback from three different managers,” she says. “I had mostly ignored the feedback. How often have you ignored feedback, thinking ‘it’s about them and not me?’ When he was talking, I was really tempted to interrupt him, but I didn’t want to prove him right.”
It was an uncomfortable moment. “He asked me, ‘Marisela, why do you think you need to talk so much?’”
Her thoughts jumbled, she sat there actively suppressing the desire to defend herself, trying to open herself to the possibility that he might be right.
“All of a sudden, I was flooded by memories,” she says. “Memories of being in grade school and being underestimated by teachers, being in middle school and being picked last for sports teams, in my professional career being told I ‘need to be more technical,’ and, more than once, being passed over for positions that I was very qualified for.”
The direct questioning made her think deeply about bias—were her bosses, her peers, her male co-workers not respecting her diverse point of view? Was her perspective as a Latina being overlooked? Was she being discriminated against?
She finally answered her boss’s provocative question.
“I am talking because I feel I need to prove myself,” Cerda recalls saying. “Not because of anything you’ve said to me, but because of all of the times in my past that I’ve felt invisible, underestimated, and unacknowledged. I’ve been overcompensating for those feelings by making sure that I am heard. A lot.”
As she spoke, her eyes were suddenly opened wide, and she found herself looking inward at a behavior pattern that was affecting every aspect of her life. “I was like a chihuahua standing in a herd of large dogs trying to get attention, yap, yap, yap—looking to get some form of validation,” she says.
She was unknowingly biased against herself.
Choosing a path
Cerda grew up in a Northern California farming town, the child of a Mexican immigrant father and a first-generation Mexican-American mother. When she was 14, her parents purchased a Windows 3.1 PC for her studies, igniting her curiosity and winning her heart. She chose computer science as her area of study, earning a computer science degree at California State University, Chico, and then turning that into a job at Microsoft. She’s worked in many jobs since she started with the company in 2001. She now works as a senior program manager for the Microsoft Retail Stores IT team.
Cerda is passionate about encouraging women to get into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. She will be talking about that and sharing her personal journey as a speaker at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference this week in Orlando, Florida.
“It’s well known that women only make up 25 percent of computational and mathematical careers, and Hispanics only make up 6 percent,” she says. It’s a story she knows well because she is active in recruiting women of color into STEM jobs, especially Hispanic women.
Back to the story of her annual review. As much as she wanted to blame the tough questions she was getting from her boss on bias against women, Latinos, or something similar, she knew she couldn’t do that.
“Yes, there are certainly biases against women and minorities in STEM, but what I learned on June 2 is that I have an unconscious bias against myself,” Cerda says. “So, you know who was holding me back? Me. I had unconsciously developed a belief that I needed to prove myself over and over again, and my biases against myself were interfering with my ability to be a more effective leader.”
Cerda says everyone faces—and contributes to—unconscious bias.
“What you can do to address it on your journey, so that you’re not the one standing in your own way?” Cerda asks. “Our brains cannot distinguish between patterns that support us or those that hold us back. The brain naturally collects information from our everyday lives and stores it without our awareness. Some information we choose to learn, but most is collected unconsciously.”
In effort to create a more inclusive culture, Microsoft recognizes the importance of uncovering unconscious biases in the workplace. The company knows biases can affect how its employees develop products, listen to customers, and interact with each other. To learn and model more inclusive behaviors, employees are required to take a course on unconscious bias.
Bias can start as early kindergarten—Cerda learned this firsthand when her kindergartner came home from school one day and reported that he had been coloring with “girl colors.”
“I asked him, ‘What are girl colors?’ In a super confident tone, he said, ‘pink, yellow, and purple,’” she says. “I was now very curious to understand how he thought he knew that. His response to me was, ‘I just know, Mommy.’”
Her son’s story is one of many where the brain unconsciously absorbs a cultural bias, and if it’s left unchecked, it would almost certainly continue. It’s the same unconscious bias that leads men and women to think that women aren’t as qualified to work in STEM fields as men.
“I was in a meeting with nine men and myself, all 10 of us were focused on troubleshooting a technical problem when the lead program manager made an observation,” Cerda says. “He said, ‘there are nine engineers in this room, we should be able to figure this out.’”
Something about his statement did not seem right.
“That’s when I raised my hand and asked, ‘You said that there are nine engineers in the room,’” Cerda says. “’Who isn’t an engineer here?’ His response to me was ‘uhhhhhh.’ The look on his face clearly indicated that he didn’t think I was an engineer, and now he was busted.”
Confronting unconscious bias
As awkward as the moment was, confronting unconscious bias is key to helping people change.
“The fact is we will all encounter bias, in other people and in ourselves,” she says. “It can hold back individuals, just like in my personal story, and it can also hold back groups of people.”
Cerda shared three tips for confronting unconscious bias. The first is to ask a question to discover if there is indeed a bias. When she piped up about the “nine engineers in the room,” she was asking the “is there bias?” question, and everyone sitting at the table knew the answer.
“The important thing to remember is not all bias is that obvious, and the less obvious, the more power it has over you,” she says.
The second tip is to provide information to address the bias. “In the case of that meeting, I told the program manager and the group that I have a degree in computer science, and so there are actually 10 engineers in the room.”
Lastly, create space for the other person to reflect, respond, and hopefully change.
“In this case, the individual graciously apologized for making an assumption,” she says. “I’m sure he’ll never do that again.”
Cerda certainly couldn’t address her bias until she let her guard down and looked inward.
“My boss did me a tremendous favor, by having the courage to ask me an uncomfortable question, which helped me unlock my bias,” she says. “I no longer feel I need to prove myself because I know that I’ve earned my seat at the table, that all my hard work is valued and appreciated.”
The Microsoft internal Unconscious Bias Training is interactive, offered in seven different languages and now publicly available—more than half of the company’s employees have completed the course. To download the course, click here.