Home    AECOM    Insight

AECOM VP Janie Tiedeman reflects on unconscious bias

AECOM VP Janie Tiedeman reflects on unconscious bias

 March 08, 2021

 Read time

For International Women's Day, AECOM Vice President of Global Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Janie Tiedeman recalls moments when she has faced unconscious bias and how we can #ChooseToChallenge ourselves and others to take on new perceptions and behaviors.

Carving out her career in a predominately male industry

As a female engineer in a predominately white, male-dominated industry, Janie has had what she describes as an "incredible whirlwind career" – from starting as a structural engineer, to managing a marketing department, to leading a transportation department and then a business line, to now being the global lead of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) at AECOM.

But it wasn’t always easy for Janie: "I could list dozens of examples of bias I’ve experienced – some implicit and some downright explicit – that have frustrated and discouraged me, like being asked if I was the wife of one of my co-workers at an industry event, sharing ideas that I helped generate but were ultimately credited to one of my male colleagues, or being told I probably got that promotion to a leadership role because more women were needed," she explains.

Overcoming unconscious bias

This was nothing new to Janie at that time. She was one of only three women in my graduating class, so she was used to seeing things through her own unique lens and doing things a little differently. What she didn’t understand was that people make assumptions, or even hurtful comments, without necessarily realizing that their unconscious biases are the reason for their actions and words.

In response to that, Janie asks: "Can unconscious bias be overcome so we learn to understand and value our differences and think before we act? Do I have my own unconscious biases that may affect others?"

The answer to both questions is yes.

Forming unconscious biases early in life

Janie quotes decades of research that show unconscious biases are formed early in our lives and occur automatically as the brain makes quick judgments based on past experiences and background.

"We are wired according to what we see, hear and experience as children when we develop a strong sense of what is “normal” and “not normal.” Our brains unconsciously process millions of data and decision points each day but can only consciously process about 40 things at a time," adds Janie.

"So, to effortlessly sort through all the stimuli around us, our brains seek patterns and create mental shortcuts that make decision-making easier. While these shortcuts can serve us well in certain situations – like our instinct to flee if we are in danger – many of these shortcuts create unintended consequences."

Addressing her own unconscious biases

Just before she took on her ED&I role, Janie attended a seminar where she was asked to take an Implicit Association Test (IAT), part of Harvard University’s ongoing Project Implicit. she chose to take the gender-career test and was shocked at the results.

"I have a strong unconscious bias that associates females with family and males with careers. How could this be? Looking back, there might be a few clues – TV shows and movies that reinforced gender stereotypes, teachers who all looked like me and doctors who didn’t, and dolls and toys that matched my demographic. It’s not surprising that in the deepest recesses of my brain, I unconsciously make those associations, even now," she says.

Achieving more diversity of thought

But, for Janie, the beauty of being human is that we can overcome our unconscious biases if we want to.

"Taking time to challenge the way we typically make decisions, how we choose the people we associate with, and how we perceive and empathize with others who aren’t like us is important to assessing how we show up," she adds.

"Understanding our own biases and non-inclusive behaviors is the first step in creating an environment in which we can find common ground, make others feel safe to express their points of view, and ultimately achieve more diversity of thought, innovation and outcomes."

#ChooseToChallenge in your career at AECOM

AECOM is the world’s premier infrastructure consulting firm, partnering with clients to solve the world’s most complex challenges and build legacies for generations to come.

If you want to take on these complex challenges in a supportive and inclusive workplace, launch your career at AECOM.


Find out more

Stay connected by subscribing to our monthly newsletter and following us on LinkedIn, X, Instagram and Facebook.

Disclosure: Where Women Work researches and publishes insightful evidence about how its paid member organizations support women's equality.


Join our women's careers community