Unravelling unconscious bias: It starts with us

by Melanie Epp


When I was a kid, I loved riddles. I remember one that really stumped me. It went something like this: A father and son get into a serious automobile accident. The father dies on the way to the hospital. The boy requires surgery. In the operating room, the surgeon said, “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.” How is this possible?

My first thought was maybe the boy was adopted. The answer? The surgeon was his mother. While the answer might seem obvious today, it wasn’t at the time. I was maybe 10 at the time, too young to know about unconscious bias, but old enough to feel shame. I’ve been trying to rid myself of that bias ever since. Sometimes, though, I really put my foot in it.

My first lesson as an agricultural journalist over a decade ago was a tough one. An editor had asked me to interview poultry farmers about new housing systems. I called the first farm on my contact list. A woman answered the phone. I explained who I was, what I wanted, and then asked to speak with her husband. “Sure, you can speak with my husband, but he’s working right now,” she said. I imagined he was in the barn, collecting eggs and caring for the birds. I had completely missed her sarcastic tone. I asked her when I should call back. She told me he worked long days as a bricklayer, and if the weather held out, he wouldn’t be home until later that evening.

“But I don’t know what you think you’re going to get out of him. I run the farm here,” she said.

Ouch. How stupid of me.

That was the first time I made the mistake of assuming the farmer in charge was a man. Sadly, it wasn’t the last. Last year, I was looking for a pig farmer to speak at a Belgian farm writers’ event. A chef friend referred me to the guy he bought his pork from. I called him up and he agreed to speak at the event. It wasn’t until after he’d finished his speech and he’d introduced me to his wife, the real farmer, that I realised my mistake. The mistake had stemmed from poor communication, but I was embarrassed nonetheless. I apologised to her in private.

I’m ashamed to even put this last example into words. I was at Fruit Logistica in Berlin, gathering stories for a publication, when I spotted a complex piece of technology that could be an industry game changer if adopted. At the exhibitor stand, a tall Swedish man explained how the technology worked to a small group of visitors. I clutched my notebook and stood off to the side waiting for him to finish. While I was waiting, a woman approached me and asked if she could help. I said thanks, but I was just waiting for her colleague to finish up. She stood silently for a moment and then asked again if she could help me. She was pretty – dark hair, dark eyes – and she had a beautiful smile. I repeated that I was just waiting for her colleague to wrap up. She smiled at me kindly and said she was sure she could help. “I’m the engineer,” she laughed. Stupid, stupid, stupid me. I had completely overlooked her, assuming that she was there to smile and serve coffee (this is so often the case at European trade events). Deeply humiliated, I apologised profusely. She told me not to worry. “This kind of thing happens all the time,” she said. “Especially from women.”

That last comment has haunted me since. While it means I’m not alone in my unconscious bias, it means other women are driven by the same biases. And that has to stop. If we want to be taken seriously, we have to take each other seriously. It starts with us.

To all the women I’ve bypassed and disregarded, ignored and undervalued, I’m truly and deeply sorry. Just like you, I’m a work in progress. I will do better by you. I promise.


Picture: Marieke Penterman – Marieke Gouda

This column was published in Women in Ag Mag 2023-001. Click here to read the magazine. 


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