Let me ask you a question about demographics. Can you name a minority — a statistically underrepresented group of people — by only knowing its size? To answer, let’s try a thought experiment with demographics.
Imagine a small group. They comprise roughly 13% of the U.S. (and 10% of the global) population. Now, let’s imagine the group shares a common trait. This is the basis of demography: the statistical study of groups or societies based on some defining criteria.
So far, so good? Great. Now, what is the common trait? Did we group using race, gender or age? Did we group by something else such as political party, education or annual salary? Or did we miss an entire group all together?
What about handedness? Our experimental group of people are simply left-handed. Lefties comprise 13.3% of U.S. citizens. Compare this to 29.4% non-Christian or unaffiliated faith members according to the Pew Research Center, or 23.7% BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) U.S. citizens according to the U.S. Census, and we see that (statistically speaking) left-handed people are technically a minority.
Before proceeding, we need to address something. When we look at the history of oppression — in the U.S. and globally — handedness is a fairly small concern compared to the major systemic injustices faced by others on the basis of race, gender, sexual identity, age or other traits.
Also, hand dominance — and its associated biases — has limits. While users with physical disabilities are often acutely aware of such biases in our physical world, all other users often are not.
Viewing implicit bias from the lens of handedness doesn’t mean we are diminishing anyone’s struggles. Instead, handedness can help cis-gendered, hetero, white people (and other groups) understand how minority groups suffer from implicit biases and how to work towards avoiding these biases—even if we don’t understand the terms cis-gendered or hetero.
What is implicit bias?
To understand implicit bias, let’s start by defining bias.
an inclination of temperament or outlook, especially a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment
For our conversation, we can think of bias as a prejudice for or against something. For example, many people are biased against certain foods, music or activities. Socially speaking, some people are biased against others based on race, gender, age or other personal traits. This kind of bias leads to discrimination.
An implicit bias is simply a prejudice that we are unaware we have.
present but not consciously held or recognized
When we put the two definitions together, we assemble the following “working” definition:
An inclination of temperament or outlook, especially a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment, that is present but not consciously held or recognized
In short, implicit biases are prejudices we hold without knowing that we hold them.
How do I find my own implicit biases?
To help build our understanding of our own implicit biases, we can look to numerous external sources. For example, the Harvard Implicit Bias Tests are computerized tests developed by Harvard to allow users to test their own biases around different social groups. The Harvard tests can be done in private—which can ease the minds of users who are new to these ideas.
We can also try out simple handedness tests on our own that do not require any technology. Let’s experiment with some common objects.
Start by finding a coffee mug with a logo. Many mugs are printed with right-handed users in mind. If you pick one up using your right hand, you’ll notice the logo often faces you. Now, pick up the same mug with your left hand. The mug appears blank. Only right-handed users are exposed to the design; left-handed users see nothing.
Next, let’s try using a spiral-bound notebook or notepad. Be sure it is bound along the vertical edge. Right-handed users should have no trouble opening the front cover and writing something. However, if they flip the notepad over and start writing from the back of the notebook, right-handed users should notice that the wire binding interferes with writing comfortably.
Countless objects have been designed for right-handed users because the vast majority of consumers are right-handed. These objects demonstrate an implicit bias against left-handed people.
The list of common objects designed for right-handed users is long: most shirt buttons and pants zippers, elevator buttons, car ignition switches, the computer mouse and keyboard, most locks (turn right to unlock, left to lock — or prohibit), most guitars, pianos, many power or hand tools, rulers, most sporting equipment, notebooks, cameras, many smartphones and many smartphone applications.
So, what does implicit bias mean for my technical communication?
As technical communicators, identifying and eliminating implicit bias is integral to our success. One of the cornerstones of our work is to understand our audiences and anticipate their needs. As a result, we have to work to identify where our own implicit and subconscious biases impede our ability to provide useful content in usable formats.
If, for example, we identify with a given race, age group, gender identity or sexual orientation, then we can deduce that we cannot inherently know the experiences of people unlike us. This is the difference between sympathy and empathy.
Sympathy is shared feelings about shared experiences. Merriam Webster defines it as:
an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other
Empathy is when we lack the personal experience but acknowledge the emotions. Merriam Webster defines it as: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience…
Looking for, and addressing our implicit biases is an act of empathy and leads to better content for all of our users.
How do I work against implicit biases in creating and delivering content?
- Check readability levels for written content such as Microsoft Word’s readability tools or tools from Adobe.
- Consider tools for visual contrast and web-accessibility such as WAVE Accessibility Tool or W3’s Web Accessibility initiative.
- Organize information for usability.
Start by understanding your audiences.
- Ask yourself an improved 5 W’s.
- We all know the 5 W’s (who, what, why, when, and where), but can we dig deeper? Can we work harder to understand our audiences? The answer is yes.
- Instead of: whois the audience? Ask yourself: And, who do they care about?
- In place of: what is their familiarity with the content? Ask: And, what is their background?
- Why do they care about our content? That’s a great start. Keep going. Ask yourself: And, why should they care about it?
- It’s important to ask: when do they need it? But, go further. Ask yourself: And, when will they use the content?
- Don’t stop at: where do they need our content? Ask yourself: And, where has our audience been or where are they going?
Remove unnecessary social constructs.
- Avoid gender-based pronouns.
- Instead of: The manager and his direct reports review these memos.
- Try: The Communications department reviews these memos.
- Avoid biased language (it also obscures meaning).
- Instead of: This plan really has legs; assembly is a snap; or our female readers should see…
- Try: The plan is viable; assembly is simple; or our audience may notice…
- Also consider global audiences (and that some references may not translate well).
- avoid the obvious troubles of slang, jargon, euphemisms, and references that rely on a specific region.
- Tokenism is the practice of practice of only making a symbolic effort. Think of it as checking a box to say you checked a box. It’s best to avoid it whenever possible.
Use active voice.
- It often helps written content stay concise and more direct while lessening the user’s cognitive load.
- Instead of: Content can be accessed by remote users.
- Try: Users access content remotely
- Instead of: Content can be accessed by remote users.
Biases are similar to feelings and preferences we hold about people, places or things. Implicit biases are subconscious prejudices we hold that lead us (unaware) to feel or act in prejudiced ways.
Secondly, while we can use a number of ways to learn about our implicit biases and how to work to get past them, looking at handedness offers a good starting place to understand biases and how they affect our audiences. We can test these effects using simple objects like spiral-bound notebooks, ceramic mugs, and other office supplies.
Other tools such as the Harvard Implicit Bias Tests can help us explore our biases and how to work against them.
As we work to overcome our own implicit biases, we can take simple steps to help us along the way. We start with paying attention to accessibility and usability. We then avoid tokenism and unnecessary and biased social constructs. Our next step is asking ourselves a nuanced version of the five W’s about our audiences. And, of course, we can use active voice to clarify and condense our written content. The sum of these efforts is not only more accessible and equitable content, but also a better understanding of both our audience and ourselves.
Washington Post article on handedness: tps://www.washingtonpost.com/health/the-big-number-lefties-make-up-about-10-percent-of-the-world/2019/08/09/69978100-b9e2-11e9-bad6-609f75bfd97f_story.html
Hand Dominance Statistics: https://www.statista.com/chart/20708/rate-of-left-handedness-in-selected-countries/
Pew Research Center on Religion in US: ttps://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/
Harvard Implicit Bias Tests: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html
US Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219
Merriam Webster Dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary
Business Speak and Discrimination article: https://www.td.org/insights/learning-to-recognize-discrimination-in-business-language
Inc article on Business Clichés: https://www.inc.com/larry-kim/these-32-business-clich-s-need-to-die.html
University of Hawaii on Language as a Communication Obstacle: https://pressbooks-dev.oer.hawaii.edu/cmchang/chapter/2-4-language-can-be-an-obstacle-to-communication/
LA County 1978 Publication on Bias Training for English Teachers: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED132588.pdf
Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) on Passive v. Active voice: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/active_and_passive_voice/index.html
NYL Respectful Disability Language: http://www.aucd.org/docs/add/sa_summits/Language%20Doc.pdf