In my role as a CEO of a tech start-up focused on removing bias from hiring, I get asked a lot of questions around biases, diversity, hiring processes, and starting a company – which makes sense. What I don’t understand is how these questions are sometimes phrased. For example:
“As a woman, what do you find are the biggest challenges of starting a business?”
“As a woman” – well that is a rather odd way to phrase the question, isn’t it? Have you ever been asked questions like:
“As a woman, how is your day?”
“As a person with blue eyes, what do you think the best way is to cook fish?”
No, of course not! That's ridiculous.
But, I am often asked professional questions “as a woman”. Why aren’t men asked the same way? Have you ever heard this:
“As a man, what do you find are the biggest challenges in starting a business?”
So, why are these ‘what you are’ phrases tacked onto the question when the question is asked to a woman (or any other with a ‘minority’ status, for that matter)? It goes without saying that I would answer any question “as a woman” - because I am one. I can’t answer “as a man” or “as a dolphin” or “as a Vulcan” – I have never been any of those.
But worse than it being unnecessary, it immediately introduces bias, not only for that question, but for all questions and conversations that follow.
The art of adding Bias to answers
When tacking on the ‘what you are’ phrase to a question, it colors how people perceive the answer. Since I am answering a question about the challenges of being a CEO “as a woman”, it must be different than a man’s answer… really?
Consider how those three little words “as a woman” change how people perceive and value the response to the question. Clearly, “as a woman” my answer will only be applicable to women, and thus should be disregarded by everyone else. “As a woman” the lessons I have learned only have value to women, and my path can only be followed by women.
That is, of course, is again, ridiculous. The truth is we are all unique, with different backgrounds, experiences, and paths. Yes, being a woman does add some interesting twists to the journey that affects my answers, but so does everything else about me.
Consider this – what biases would color perception of my answer if I was asked the same question phrased in a different way (note: my answer would be exactly the same):
“As someone who studied engineering, what do you find the biggest challenges are of starting a business?”
“As one that straddles gen-Y & millennials, what do you find the biggest challenges are of starting a business?”
“As an introvert, what do you find the biggest challenges are of starting a business?”
So really, my ‘what you are’ phrase should be: “As an introverted, gen-y/millennial woman with an engineering background and… <<insert a bunch more stuff>>, what do you find the biggest challenges are of starting a business?”
OR – just ask the question without any ‘what you are’ qualifiers. I promise, if part of my answer is because I am a woman or an introvert or an engineer, or any other number of things that I am, I will say so.
The art of NOT adding bias to answers
There are times when ‘what you are’ phrases do make sense – when it adds a specific credibility to the answer. For example:
“As an avid coffee drinker, what do you think of our latest roast?”
“As a parent of two young children, what do you think of the movie rating system?”
For everything else, leave the qualifier off the question to avoid biasing the perception of the response. You can always include a bio at the end of the piece or a link to the person’s profile so the audience can determine what is important context for the shared wisdom.
As for the question about the challenges of starting a business – if you must use a ‘what you are’ qualifier, I recommend this one:
“As the founder and CEO of a tech start-up, what do you find the biggest challenges are of starting a business?”
So, as a <<add an aspect of yourself here>>, what do you think about adding ‘what you are’ phrases to questions?