Most of us who hold marginalised, prejudged, underestimated and downright despised identities, but have somehow clawed our way to a seat at the proverbial table, inevitably find ourselves shouldering responsibility for changing the system from within.
Whether formally or informally, whether by request or because the survivor’s guilt won’t let us rest. We wear our regular job hat and at the same time that of Equality’s Champion. Watchdog, diagnostician, preacher, teacher, activist, panellist and everything else, rolled into one in service of dragging one’s team, organisation — hell, probably industry — forward and into the light.
There’s much I could talk about here. Like the exhaustion of layering such time and energy-intensive work on top of already following the ‘work twice as hard and you might get half as far’ dictum. Or the headache of oscillating between resenting the responsibility and feeling guilty that you’re not doing enough considering how ‘good you have it’ and how much you understand about what needs doing. Or the angst of trying to decide whether any personal gain resulting from this is the least you deserve or selfish exploitation of the cause.
The worst thing though, and the least often discussed is the mindfuck that is never knowing for sure whether you’re seeing what you think you’re seeing and at the same time think you’re not seeing. Because of course, systemic bias is intangible, colourless, odourless; its existence is only proven by the outcomes it causes.
You don’t get to see the bias itself, you see the statement, or choice, or action, or result, and understand that bias must or may have played a causal role in it. Sometimes it’s helpfully transparent; hate laid bare, the action or choice so egregiously unjust there could be no other explanation really, but bias manifested. Sometimes, and increasingly often in our new world of capitalism-but-nice, it’s about as clear as mud, and you find yourself looking at statements, choices, actions or results that could have resulted from any number of causal actions.
So how then do you know whether the watchdog in you should be barking? The canary is dead on the floor of the coalmine but there appears to be lots of ostensibly fair and logically consistent explanations for how it happened. So you stand there, feeling gaslit and impotent. It’s hard enough persuading folks of bias you can clearly recognise and attest to, when you’re this uncertain it’s basically impossible.
Venture Capital, I find, is particularly hellish for this. It’s a confidence game after all. A process of getting subjectively comfortable enough with a gamble that you risk other people’s money on it, and there are always good reasons to not reach that point of conviction. When you step back and take the macro view of this industry, with mere scraps of investment going to women, blacks and other people of colour, there’s no doubt you’re looking at an outcome that is a manifestation of pure, premium-grade bias. That certainty falters and the clarity vanishes by the time you zoom all the way into the ground level, day to day of it.
You find yourself side-eyeing colleagues, industry peers and yourself trying to figure out if that choice or action was fair and just or symptomatic of biased thinking. You dissect the ‘evidence’ left and right, wondering whether you’ve found proof of the thing you are tasked with watching out for and come up with no definitive answer either way. In one instance you might ask yourself ‘if this founder was a white man, would we have passed’ and realise the answer is an unhelpful ‘maybe’.
Then you start to wonder: if the ostensibly “fair” and unimpeachable performance of the processes native to the system will always result in inequitable outcomes, what then?