Fighting with shadows: navigating unconscious bias in the workplace.

Unconsciously, we gravitate towards people who remind us of ourselves. If you stop and take a look at your friends you might be surprised to find how many of them look, act and think like you. Most of us believe we’re open‑minded and objective, but our beliefs and values strongly influence the way we see and evaluate both others and ourselves. These beliefs and values are gained from our family, cultural background and life experiences.

In the workplace this can be seen in those who unconsciously mix with and promote like-minded people. The Australian Institute of Management defines unconscious bias as ‘ingrained stereotypes that we hold and that inform our decision-making but of which we are unaware’. In other words, the widely held mind-sets that are rarely acknowledged but that create salient barriers, especially for women.

A 2012 study found that when compared with their male peers, women are rated down irrespective of whether they behave in a stereotypically masculine or stereotypically feminine way. The research from Yale in the US involved a randomised double-blind study, where scientists from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Results found that the ‘female’ applicants were rated significantly lower than the ‘males’ in competence, employability, and whether the scientist would be willing to mentor the student. The application itself was the same; only the name had changed.

Another example of unconscious bias in the workplace can be found in policies around maternity leave, which embed the view that women are the primary carers. While everyone agrees diversity, resilience and flexibility are the hallmarks of a successful and productive organisation, it requires a shift in conditions and cultural norms for men as well as women. Strong business practices allow both men and women to care for and nurture their families at the same time as maintaining their sense of self and having fulfilling careers. Men must join this conversation too—publicly, candidly, and loudly. It would be transformative if more men opened up about their desires regarding work and family. It would start to normalise flexibility, minimise guilt and anxiety, and consequently maximise productivity.

But these cultural norms that we’re trying to shift are underpinned by our own individual beliefs. Unfortunately, we are too often our own worst enemies. If we examine our own unconscious bias we can see how that might be informing a number of negative beliefs we hold about ourselves and others. These beliefs become self-fulfilling—when you focus on something, you attract it. In my case, when I returned from maternity leave and found my career completely stymied, I started to embody the belief that I wasn’t good enough at my job and that I was half the worker I used to be now that I had children to care for. I looked for evidence to confirm this belief and ignored or distorted information to the contrary. Through my actions I was supporting the spurious notion that part-timers aren’t as dedicated and that working mothers can’t have it all, further reinforcing others’ unconscious bias.

The best way to overcome this kind of career shadow is to start with you. You have more power to change yourself than you might think. Identify and let go of any negative beliefs you’re holding and replace them with new, positive ones. Ask yourself if the beliefs you hold are serving you—what price are you paying for holding onto this belief? How is it hurting you? Where did this belief come from? Can you find evidence to disprove it? Once you’ve examined and discarded the beliefs that aren’t serving you, create new empowering ones. Find a good role model. If there are no suitable role models around you, create your own definition of what makes a great leader and become that leader.

Once we become aware of, and start raising awareness of, unconscious bias in the workplace, then we can start to shift the organisational culture to be more inclusive, more flexible and more diverse.

Are you a mother or father who has struggled with unconscious bias in the workplace? Tell us your story in the comments below.


Yes, I’m a mother, but I can still add value at work


In 2010 I joined the Australian Public Service after trying out several careers as a primary school teacher, a JET Programme participant in Japan and a travel agent. I’ve always been a very enthusiastic person with high standards and strong ambitions. I absolutely thrived in my first year. I was given very exciting, challenging projects and a wide range of experiences. I was stretched, extended and supported. I really felt like I’d found my place and I was motivated and engaged in my work.

Fast forward to 2012 and I’m back at work after having my first baby. I was keen to prove that I was still a committed and valuable team member but something had subtly shifted. My output and enthusiasm were still super high but I was no longer being given the same range of opportunities to stretch my skills. This was my first experience of unconscious bias, though I didn’t know what it was at the time. My supervisor was very kind and supportive, explaining that he didn’t want to overburden me as I now had additional responsibilities at home. He wasn’t being intentionally discriminatory – in fact I think he genuinely believed he was being accommodating.

My job was advertised for backfilling just before I went on maternity leave again. The vacancy notice called for applicants at higher level than I was. I burst into (heavily pregnant) tears and told my supervisor that I felt completely devalued by this. He was sympathetic but explained that the work going forward was at a high level and he wanted to get quality job applicants. I took on and internalised the message that I wasn’t good enough.

Fast forward to 2014 and I’m back in the department after my second round of maternity leave. I wanted to work part-time so that I could balance my career ambitions with the important job of raising my little people. My supervisor was very accommodating and happy to have me back. But I had to work above and beyond to prove that I was capable of doing the tasks that, pre-babies, I had been given without hesitation. My motivation and engagement were at an all-time low and I started to make careless mistakes. I really began to embody the belief that I wasn’t valuable or good enough at my job.

At this point I sought out a mentor. I approached my networks and asked for advice. Every one of them told me to put my feelers out and look for another position. Change is good, they said.

I managed to score myself a free life coach and this was the point where I really began to get out of my rut. Over the course of six coaching sessions she proceeded to completely change my perspective on life. She helped me to form new positive beliefs about myself and take a series of actions toward getting where I wanted to be.

One of those actions was initiating a women’s network in my department to support women facing barriers in their career journeys. These include commitment to family responsibilities, career breaks, lack of confidence and self-belief, and unconscious bias.

I also actively pursued and obtained a new job (at a higher level!) in a completely different area of my department. My new position is in a very different environment and the change has been both challenging and invigorating.

My advice to anyone who feels like they’re stuck in a rut is to approach a mentor or a career coach or both. The key reason I wanted to start the women’s network is to help other people going through similar difficulties – if you’re a regular follower you may have noticed helping people is a recurrent theme. I now know first-hand the value of supportive mentors and a coach who can help you see all the opportunities that are out there. I genuinely hope the network can provide this kind of supportive space for others.

I’m not crunchy – I’m a cherry picker

There’s plenty of labels on the parenting spectrum these days: attachment parents, crunchy mamas, baby whisperers, Ferberizers, helicopter parents, snow plough parents, baby-wearers, Failsafers, GAPS parents… The list goes on.

One of the labels I kept coming across in my desperate Googling for answers about A was ‘crunchy’. Indeed, to the casual observer I must seem pretty crunchy (which is a US term to describe environmentally conscious, left-leaning types – named after the sound a person makes as they traipse through the granola littered aisles of a health food store in their Birkenstocks). I prefer gentle parenting methods, use cloth nappies, leave onions in my kids’ rooms overnight when they have colds, passionately promulgate Maria Montessori’s philosophy and pedagogy and regularly consult a naturopath about most ailments.

But I’m not really a crunchy mama, or any other catch-all label for that matter. I’m a cherry picker. I take the best bits out of each ideology and combine these pieces to create a parenting philosophy that suits me and my family. I’ve never been an overly black and white person. As a Libran I prefer balance. I believe and trust in the rigour of scientific evidence as much as I enjoy the inexplicable success of unproven, ‘alternative’ methods.

My issue with a lot of the positive parenting approaches that I loosely follow is twofold: fanaticism and total sublimation of self. Take, for example, attachment parenting. The basic tenets of attachment parenting include baby wearing, co-sleeping and unschooling/homeschooling – choices that basically ensure you spend 24 hours a day with your child or children. The aim of attachment parenting is to develop a strong and trusting relationship with your child, with a deeper emotional understanding between you. This is both admirable and desirable, but when you spend all of your time completely devoted to your children you run the risk of completely sacrificing your own needs in the process. One of attachment parenting’s strongest adherents, Dr Justin Coulson (who I usually really like!) has recently said: ‘when you have a baby, you give up the right to be selfish for the next 20 years’. If this is the case, what message are you sending to your children? That your needs don’t matter? You are a role model for your children, and if you don’t honour your own needs and spend time on your happiness you’re showing them that it is acceptable to sublimate yourself for others.

And then there’s the zealous fanaticism demonstrated by some of these people. In these cases I wonder if their devotion stems from an inner insecurity and fear. They may have had less than amazing childhoods themselves and are living with anxiety or depression as a result. The zealots take to the interwebs and castigate parents who make ‘damaging’ choices. They decry the horror of abandoning a child in daycare with a stranger and the selfishness of a mother who chooses work over caring for her babies. They obsess over their choices and behaviour, trying to ensure that every word they utter is gentle and vilifying anyone who lets their baby cry, even for a second. I’m not saying these people represent all attachment parents, but they make enough noise that it’s often difficult to ignore them.

The discovery that the brain is only roughly 20 per cent complete at birth, while the rest is physically formed by the child’s experience of love or of its absence, is touted as compelling evidence for attachment parenting methods. Love literally creates the neural pathways responsible for happiness, calmness, closeness, co-operation and self-regulation. Whilst I absolutely agree with this, I also believe self-love is a critical part of this picture. I think it’s possible to select the parts of each parenting philosophy that suits you and your family and mix and match them to ensure there is a balance and everyone is getting the right amount of love. A happy, balanced mama makes for a happy, balanced family.

Do you find yourself living an overly restricted life because you believe it’s in your children’s best interests? Are you happy with your choices or do you feel deep-down that you would like a change or some more time out for you? Please leave a comment below and tell me about your experiences.

Starting solids with a food intolerant baby

Starting solids with your baby is usually exciting and fun. It marks the beginning of weaning from milk to family foods and is a major milestone in your lives.

The spectrum of approaches to introducing solids ranges from ‘baby-led weaning’ to spoon feeding. Baby-led weaning is a more child directed approach and involves allowing the baby to select their own food, usually from the family foods at the table. Spoon feeding involves offering the baby a purée on a spoon, with the most popular first food being rice cereal.

Unfortunately, for some mamas introducing solids is a time fraught with fear and trepidation. If your baby suffers from reflux then it’s possible you already know about their food intolerances. Perhaps you’ve eliminated the offending food proteins from your diet or your baby is on an elemental (amino acid) formula like Neocate. In most cases the big offenders are dairy and soy, but even if you steer clear of the identified food proteins the introduction of solids can still be a time of major reflux flares and night wakings.

The key is to go slowly. Start with one food at a time, for at least 5 days, and keep a strict food diary to record any reactions (including, if you’re breastfeeding, what you’re eating). If you choose to use the baby-led approach ensure that baby is only accessing one food (a range of options will come later – for now just try to be patient).

Another thing to remember is that reflux babies usually have a very sensitive gag reflex, so only offer small amounts of food and don’t be alarmed if baby appears to gag on everything! It just takes time and familiarisation and you mustn’t force them to eat anything lest they develop an oral aversion.

With regard to what food to introduce first: remember the mantra ‘every baby is different’. Just because rice cereal worked for the lady down the road or your Great Aunt Nell doesn’t mean it will work for your baby. In fact, rice cereal can be the worst thing to introduce first to a food intolerant baby! It can also be the trigger for ongoing constipation issues with some toddlers because it slows down their gut motility. Conversely, for babies with reflux that isn’t caused by food intolerances it can be great as it helps the stomach contents to stay settled.

In our case, A started with homemade chicken stock (broth) made from simmering the bones of an organic chicken in water for four hours. I had read about the healing qualities of bone broth and I knew that A’s gut needed healing.

The first lot of broth went really well. She loved it and had no reaction at all. The second time I used the bones of a BBQ (rotisserie) chicken from my local supermarket because we’d eaten the chicken for dinner. It was a free-range chook but it was a total disaster. Poor little A broke out in a rash around her mouth and very quickly showed signs of intestinal distress – extreme flatulence, mucous in her stools, frequent night wakings and irritability. I’m pretty sure those chickens are basted in soy, so that was a silly move on my part.

The second food we introduced was butternut pumpkin (squash). This also went well with no reaction. Zucchini came next and provoked a big reaction so then we tried swede (rutabaga), which was fine.

We continued to trial foods, adding one new one per week (carrots – fine; banana – epic fail; etc) until we had a solid list of meats and vegetables and a few fruits. We avoided grains for quite a while with A because we wanted to be as kind to her gut as possible. I mixed slippery elm and probiotics into every single purée in order to soothe and fortify her gut and all was going quite well, even if at a seemingly glacial pace. We retrialled zucchini with success and gradually began to add more and more variety, including gluten-free bread and rice.

At eleven months it was time for me to return to work and this is when things got tricky. Our beautiful day care centre has an in-house ‘chef’ who prepares morning and afternoon tea and lunch. I gave the centre A’s list of safe foods, and they dutifully stuck to it, but we found that when we picked her up at the end of the day she was STARVING. I was pumping milk for her at work but she was refusing to drink it at day care and my supply was dropping. On top of this she was miserable because she wanted to eat what the other babies were eating.

We stuck it out for another five months, introducing a new food each week until at 14 months we had an appointment with an immunologist who basically told us to remove all restrictions from both of our diets. The day care centre was overjoyed and A was no longer hungry at the end of the day. We transitioned pretty smoothly to a normal diet but after a few weeks we noticed that sleep started to become elusive again and the reflux was back.

I’m now at the point where A is seeing an osteopath again and we’ll try four sessions with him before I try restricting her diet again. My instinct tells me it’s still food intolerances, but the thought of putting her on a restricted diet at 20 months fills me with dread.

I would love to hear anyone else’s story – please comment below! Did you try the GAPS diet with your LO? Or the Failsafe diet (as I did)? Did your LO grow out of their intolerances without intervention?


The best you can is good enough


Although it’s hard to see it in the moment, doing the best you can really is good enough. So many of us struggle with the universal fear that we’re not good enough or that we’re not trying hard enough to overcome our difficulties. We compare ourselves to others and set our standards in line with their achievements. We form beliefs about ourselves and then set about finding proof that these beliefs are true, whilst ignoring or distorting information to the contrary.

Take, for example, my struggle to breastfeed N. The standard and expectation I had set myself was that I would be able to breastfeed my baby. I had researched it thoroughly and knew beyond doubt that it would provide her with the optimal start in life, not to mention being free, convenient and natural. So when things didn’t go to plan I firmly believed that I had failed as a mother. I continually sought to confirm this belief by finding examples of women who’d gone to greater lengths than I had to breastfeed and comparing their experience to mine. If anyone tried to tell me that I had done my best or tried harder than others I ignored (‘they don’t know what they’re talking about!’) or distorted (‘but that woman is nothing like me!’) this information because it didn’t suit the purpose of confirming my belief.

Every time I gave N formula I felt like I was poisoning her. I lurked on hardcore breastfeeding forums where other mamas raved on threads about exclusive pumping and how they would rather die than let a drop of formula pass their baby’s lips. I called the Australian Breastfeeding Association, who were kind and supportive but also firm in their approbation of ‘artificial baby milk’. I ignored my doctor who suggested that ‘breast is best, except when it isn’t’ and also reassured me that the most important thing a baby needs is a happy mama. I looked for a breastmilk donor, despite feeling extremely squeamish about the idea. I read story after story about women who had overcome latching issues and weight gain problems and went on to breastfeed exclusively and I completely ignored the fact that every woman and baby is unique and there is no single solution.

This kind of behaviour is unrealistic and unfair but worst of all it’s counterproductive. In trying my hardest to do the best by N, I sacrificed myself in the process and ended up with postnatal depression. It wasn’t because I couldn’t breastfeed her – it was my belief that I hadn’t tried hard enough.

The people you compare yourself to when you’re setting your standards are comparing themselves to others. Everyone you meet is fighting their own inner battle that you know nothing about, so it’s foolish to assume that someone else is better than you or tries harder.

Focusing on confirming the belief that you’re not good enough leaves you with less time and energy to enjoy the things you’re actually good at and that make you happy. Lori Deschene, founder of the amazing Tiny Buddha, says ‘we can’t hate ourselves into a version of ourselves we can love.’

It’s important to realise that you can actually change your beliefs (thank you, Jess Lowe!) and you don’t have to believe your negative thoughts about yourself. The first and most crucial step is awareness. Once you’re able to identify the beliefs you hold you’re more than halfway towards changing them. The next step is to shift your perspective, without judgement. It’s not so easy to do this because so many of our core beliefs about ourselves have been deeply ingrained since childhood. It requires a fair amount of unpacking and a lot of practise with defusing negative thoughts.

In my own example, I shifted my point of view and focused on progress rather than perfection and was able to see how far I’d come and how much I’d achieved. When I threw myself into doing things I enjoy (like writing!), I had less time to ruminate on my negative thoughts. Instead of comparing myself to others who might have tried harder I wrote down my story and reflected on how very hard I had tried.

Ultimately, if you’ve tried the best you can, the best you can is good enough. Maybe Thom Yorke meant it to be ironic but it works for me.

Toddler vs duck pond

So it’s finally happened. My toddler has fallen into a duck pond.

I used to be a huge ball of anxiety, so even going near the duck pond would once have been a very stressful outing for me. Unbidden would rise images of my children falling in, contracting some rare, hideous disease and consequently dying slowly and painfully. Lovely!

On this occasion, it was a brilliant idea to wander down to the duck pond with two toddlers who had just been strapped into their car seats for the four hour journey back from Nanny and John Pop’s house. They were desperate for some fresh air and exercise and being spring it was likely there’d be ducklings.

On the way there, N couldn’t contain her excitement at the prospect of seeing baby ducks so she ran ahead. Meanwhile A was enjoying forensically examining every blade of grass and snail shell she encountered. It got to a situation where I was standing half way between a toddler near a large body of water and a toddler near a busy road.

At this point the thought briefly crossed my mind, ‘what would I do if…?’ But I barely had time to dismiss the horrifying thought before my eyes beheld one very excited toddler dashing headlong into the duck pond!

I screamed a very loud expletive, checked to make sure that A wasn’t too close to the road, and then literally flew on my terrified mother wings down to the duck pond to save my little girl.

As I was running, I could see that N had turned herself around in the water and had paddled back to the edge to hold on. It was at this point that I realised that months of swimming lessons had paid for themselves.

I hauled one dripping wet, hysterical toddler out (not forgetting to also retrieve all three of her drenched ‘babies’) and then ran back up the path to collect A. She was furious at the change of plans but as I had to get N back home as quickly as possible I couldn’t afford to put her down to dawdle.

I then stoically walked the 500 metres back to our house clutching one furious toddler howling and slapping in utter indignation while the other sobbed hysterically, festooned with pond weed and duck detritus. A fun day out for all.

Honoring the Emotional Child

This is wonderful and timely, as I just this week picked up an extra day at work (meaning an extra day in care for my girls). I’m currently feeling ALL of the feelings and need to be able to express this in the same way that my girls need to be able to express their sadness at separating from me.

Abundant Life Children

Crying. Screaming. Whining.  Moping.  Melting down.  Pestering.  Throwing a tantrum.  Pitching a fit.  We have many ways to describe a child’s emotional sorrows: the anger, desire, frustration, fury, sadness, and loneliness experienced by the young children in our lives.  As parents and providers, we are not-so-subtly pressured to get these moments under control.  The sideways glances while we are out in public, or the raised eyebrows of judgment imploring a tighter reign over our reckless and disrespectful lot.  And then there is the more powerful internal drive to fix.  We often hold the power to bandage the woes – the desired cookie, the delayed bedtime, the ability to walk instead of ride.  Yet what do children experience when we fix?  And is the fix always truly a fix?

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