#BreakingtheBias at Wise – Happy IWD’22!
Analytics and Design Research teams at Wise take pride not only in their exemplary diversity but also in the strong females that are spearheading their mission. For International Women’s Day, we asked our fearless leaders what #BreakingtheBias means for them personally and the role it plays as they think about their teams and cross-functional partnerships at Wise.
Hazal Muhtar – Senior Analytics Lead for Global Product
Danielle Macdonald – Head of Design Research
1. How do you define bias?
Hazal: The analogy I often use to talk about bias is trying to see through a thick fog. It prevents us from truly grasping and internalising the realities of the people in front of us. It’s ultimately a misguided belief about how we think someone will feel, think, or act without giving them a chance to show their authentic selves and where their real value comes from.
It is sadly based on our upbringing and past experiences as our brains, unless challenged and made better, naturally gravitate towards the familiar paths, making associations and generalisations and leading to factually inaccurate conclusions.
As a result, we end up in this never-ending and detrimental loop of our preconceived notions that are misplaced.
Danielle: Seeking to identify and acknowledge bias is a big part of a researcher’s job but can be much more insidious and harder to address when thinking about your own journey within a business.
For me, bias is the patterns of behaviour and thinking that we leverage when making sense of the world. Rightly or wrongly, bias helps us make quick decisions and frames how we understand and respond to the world around us. At the same time, a lack of self-awareness around our personal biases, particularly when it comes to how we think about the people we work with and build products for, can be incredibly damaging and problematic.
Biases are inevitable, but they aren’t always constructive.
2. How have you experienced bias in your professional journey thus far?
Hazal: There have been so many instances in my career where I’ve been exposed to somebody else’s biases of me…None of these has been as hurtful to my self-confidence or had as much of a negative impact on my career as the biases I carried with me a very long time about myself.
I’d like to be vulnerable and share that story.
I’ve always been drawn to numbers. That meant that I found myself first deep in Mathematics and later in Data pretty quickly. My career has always been in Analytics, the majority in Technology companies. This often meant that I represented a gender-based minority in a lot of the settings I studied or worked in. This comes with its challenges as I know many of the people reading this blog will find familiar. Over time, I’ve learned to be comfortable with my own voice in a room even if there were no other voices that sounded like mine. Growing into that comfort gave me strength and I think it made me a stronger analyst.
But my journey into leadership was a beast of its own…sometimes it still feels like it is! I’ve been fortunate to progress relatively quickly in my career thanks to many mentors who were willing to take a chance on me and challenged me to continuously grow. But that quickly resulted in me not only being the only female in a room but also the youngest…. more often than not. That combination, I really struggled with and for a long time.
I remember avoiding any and all conversations about age when I joined Wise, not wanting people to add me on LinkedIn because “they would do the math”. I constantly worried that knowing this information would make people doubt my skills, experiences, and abilities and somehow undermine the value of anything I had to contribute. I went through the interview process just like everyone else but there was a part of me that just felt undeserving of being here in the position that I had. In my core cross-functional peer group of experienced, male Product Managers, Engineers and Designers, I became so conscious of my gender and age that I remember initially being so intentional about what I even wore to Zoom meetings, so I looked more mature and serious. I think back and laugh at that now, but it took a long time for me to not expose myself to my own biases or the biases of others I envisioned in my head about my value.
I lead a team of 21 brilliant analysts at Wise. I noticed a real shift in my mindset when I felt fiercely protective of their voices within their cross-functional teams, many still very early in their careers.
I realised that I had a responsibility to demonstrate what confident leadership needed to look like. As a lead, you set the precedent and the tone within your team which is a massive responsibility. I want my analysts to feel comfortable to challenge their stakeholders and peers, voice and defend their opinions, and know the valuable perspective they bring to the table no matter how experienced their peers might be. I needed to internalise this myself and practice what I preached. That meant confronting my own biases about myself and understanding where they come from.
There is nothing worse than being afraid of your strengths and achievements. We are all working at Wise and have the roles that we have, lead the projects we lead, coach the people that we coach because we deserve to. Easier said than internalised, trust me! But this is what I repeat each day, both to myself and everyone I work with.
Danielle: Ooh! In so many ways!
Similarly to Hazal, I think it is incredibly common for women to underestimate themselves and I am no different. For a long time, I struggled to embrace and acknowledge the skills that I have as valuable, particularly as they were so often skills that were undervalued. Caring and understanding about people, those skills that are so often labelled “soft”, those skills that for some strange reason we choose to undervalue and equate with easy or irrelevant. These are essential for building strong stakeholder relationships and managing people effectively. I have seen firsthand how not having these skills can undermine and damage workplaces, teams, customer impact as well as the human spirit.
In my profession, I have been told I do the “fluffy stuff”, been dismissed for not being “hard” enough, for seeking joy in the workplace as well as productivity, for being a young woman in male-dominated industries. I have contributed to that bias, taking on the role of the friendly, helpful one, and shying away from difficult conversations that might paint me as unlikable or hard to work with. As I have grown in my career, and particularly as a lead, that fear and behaviour has increasingly ebbed away – advocating for others brings out the best in me, and the concern I have about being perceived as difficult lessened because, at the end of the day, I am here to support my team and our customers, and that means standing up for what is right even when it is a challenging conversation.
3. How do you help break the bias at Wise?
Hazal: It comes down to two things for me:
- Creating a culture of understanding: It’s in our human nature to be afraid of what and who we don’t know. In the absence of real information, our brains fill in the gaps and it’s often misconstrued. We have an incredibly diverse team at Wise, not only in gender but in diversity of thought…. through a beautifully eclectic collection of ethnicities, belief systems, and personal and professional experiences. As leaders, we should (and very much try to) create reasons for connectivity among the people we work with, making it possible for personal connections to happen and our understanding of each other to deepen. I find that is the easiest way to break biases and its effect is felt not only within the company but in our society through the open-mindedness we are encouraging at work.
- Developing people who embrace their own self-worth: There is something so powerful about someone who is so self-aware and self-assured of their own self-worth that biases they are exposed to are simply just noise. That is what I hope to develop within my own team and across analytics. The easiest way a lead can do that is by recognition. Make it a point to recognize someone for their hard work, how creatively they solved a problem, how meticulously they worked through a complex issue, how fiercely they defended their opinion. It’s a lead’s job to look and observe when no one else is looking and call out the behaviour so it can be acknowledged and repeated. You never know what challenges and insecurities or doubts that person is working through in their head. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to give them a mirror to see their own light.
Danielle: Modelling the behaviour I want to see in the world, be that by calling out what I see as unjust or celebrating where we break down barriers. This is particularly significant given my role as a leader as I believe it is on those with greater levels of power to reconsider the perspectives we hold and the cultures we maintain, both of which are hard for the marginalised among us to challenge.
I also see it as my responsibility to ensure that I continue to learn and share that knowledge with my teammates to empower greater awareness of bias and inequity in the business and wider world around us. I want to make it accepted and expected that leaders will engage with this work across our business and live these values so our teams and fellow Wisers can feel confident they can bring their full potential to bear.
Additionally, seeking out and celebrating the diversity all around us. I am lucky enough to lead a team of researchers that come from many different walks of life and I hope to ensure that continues and becomes more prevalent across the business.