Check Your Bias
To be humbled is to be illuminated and that is exactly what happened to me in 1991 at the Summer Institute of Intercultural Communications outside of Portland, Oregon. I went with the assumption that because I thought I was not a prejudiced person that I actually wasn’t a prejudiced person. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
During the final case study of a week-long workshop, my job was to present a proposal to two executives – a woman and a man. I prepared thoroughly, I was backed up with research and I presented the materials with the minimum number of ums and hiccups.
It wasn’t until the debrief that I learned that I had focused about 80% of my eye contact and attention on the man across the table all but ignoring the woman who, by the way, was the “CEO” of the company. I don’t know what was more mortifying, that I had the bias or that it was so out of my consciousness.
Self-awareness is viewed as one of the first and essential steps on the path to cultural competence, but there are so few opportunities to have the gift of such illumination presented to us in a safe and supportive learning environment. Too often people who are “called out,” get defensive or aren’t given usable tools and therefore lose the opportunity for awareness and growth.
In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg references a study conducted by Columbia University Business School and NY University professors, Frank Flynn and Cameron Anderson. The idea behind the study was to test perceptions of both men and women in the workplace. They presented students with a leadership case study that was exactly the same in every way except for the name of the leader was Howard in one and Heidi in the other.
The students were then asked their impressions. To their credit they rated them equally on competence, but on respect their responses varied greatly. Howard was a more desirable colleague while Heidi was seen as selfish and not the type of person people wanted to work for. What they found was that unconscious bias was alive and well. With all things being equal except gender, people responded and judged them differently.
Over the past couple of months I have been working a lot with doctors. As a result I have been speaking with a lot of people about medical professionals. Regardless of the fact that most of the doctors about whom I was speaking were women, it was interesting to hear how often most people used the pronoun “he.”
I took note the first few times, but then started to become fascinated by the fact that it kept happening over and over again. Even people who could be described as feminists, well-traveled, well educated or possessing of open hearts, were making this classic error.
It is reasonable to rationalize such stories as based in history i.e.
“In the past most doctors were men…” but that doesn’t change the fact that we are still operating in a modern world where bias towards groups with shared characteristics is no longer an acceptable or desirable quality.
- Recognize that there is a chance you may suffer from unconscious bias.
- Partake in assessments that identify your preferences and biases in order to develop self-awareness.
- Develop clear vision of what your success looks like and how unconscious bias may be getting in the way of you accomplishing your goals most effectively.
- Identify areas where you may be at most risk of expressing your bias – work, home, socializing and via gender, race, national culture, economic culture etc.
- Develop specific action-steps to avoid falling into the pitfalls to which most people succumb so that your success is not undermined by your history and natural development.
Finally, if you are not sure just ASK. Becoming competent at not being unconsciously bias requires the right Attitude, Skills and Knowledge. You may not be able to prepare yourself for every different situation, but being a conscious observer with a curious approach can protect even the best intending of people from putting their foot in their mouth.