When Talking about Bias Can Make a Situation Worse

recent New York Times article, Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg shared this brain teaser: A father and a son are in a car accident. The father is killed, and the son is seriously injured. The son is taken to the hospital where the surgeon says, “I cannot operate, because this boy is my son.” I confess that I felt stumped, but I could have kicked myself when I read on and saw the answer. Once again, I caught myself, in spite of all the work I have done on challenging gender stereotypes in myself and others, assuming the surgeon was a man—one of those enduring stereotypes about which gender belongs in a role. The doctor in this story was a woman, and the mother of the victim. This is a humbling reminder of how deeply embedded and unconscious the stereotypes we carry in us can be. Grant and Sandberg report that 40 to 75 percent of people today still can’t figure out the brain teaser above. I have previously written about the ways that gender bias might be creating barriers for women at work. In another recent article about the dearth of women in technology, Google was praised for instituting diversity-training workshops last year based on an emerging field in social psychology known as unconscious bias—the pervasive and hidden reflexive preferences that shape our worldviews and reactions to others. Grant and Sandberg point out, though, that the approach Google used can make the situation worse, if not handled carefully. They cite several recent research studies that show that making people aware of stereotypes about women actually decreased the likelihood that research participants would hire a female candidate or judge her likeable. Here’s the catch: we should not stop making people aware of stereotypes, but we have to be very careful about how we do it. Grant and Sandberg note that research shows that if we just say, “These stereotypes are deeply embedded and common in our society,” people seem to hear the message, “Everyone else is biased, so I don’t need to worry as much about what I say or do.” Instead, researchers say that what makes a difference is taking the additional step to be sure that we explicitly communicate the following messages about these biases:

  • These biases are undesirable and unacceptable.
  • Other people want to conquer these biases, and you should, too.
  • Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.
A lot of good news is coming out about the positive difference that gender balance can bring to the workplace and about the strengths women leaders bring. I suggest that we remind the people around us in the workplace of these positive facts to help motivate them, and ourselves, to move past gender biases:
  • Men are more confident, but women are more competent.
  • When women lead, performance improves.
  • Start-ups led by women are more likely to succeed.
  • Innovative firms with more women in top management are more profitable.
  • Companies with more gender balance have more revenue.
Let’s become aware of and point out gender discrimination and bias when we see it. I want gender bias to disappear. Shouldn’t your colleagues and your organization want this, too?]]>

4 thoughts on “When Talking about Bias Can Make a Situation Worse”

  1. Anne,
    I always look forward to reading your articles. They provoke and stimulate and take me back to reflect on the value of your research presented in your recently published book. Thank you for sharing your research, humanity, and insights. What a fine model you present to us ….. not only in the work place – a way to be and to do!
    J Kokes, Ph.D.

  2. I like to say we need to be more “thougtful” – rather than “careful” in this work. There is so much FEAR about getting things “wrong.” (especially with me and my white women friends…) Just adding some thought helps so much.
    Dear Anne, do you get these messages? Do they go anywhere else? it isn’t obvious to me!
    Happy MLK Day.

  3. I like to say we need to be more “thougtful” – rather than “careful” in this work we are doing all together. There is so much FEAR about getting things “wrong” (especially with me and my white women cohort…) Just adding some thought helps so much, but please don’t be too careful!


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