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Breaking through bias

What can we do about the brain's limitations?

By Ian Hendry

One of the interesting aspects of our profession is the conversations we have outside our immediate business circle. I’m sure you, like me, have been in situations where someone makes an outlandish statement, which strikes a chord in you that demands exploratory investigation. 

Such was the case on the weekend when a friend, talking about a female executive, was explaining how difficult she was to get along with, describing her as abrasive, among other things. 

Now this is an “old chestnut” for HR, so I thought I would explore his description a little more deeply and why he specifically used this term. Many of you are possibly aware of studies that have surfaced noting that women receive more negative personality criticisms than men. Apparently descriptors most often used against women include abrasive, but also strident, emotional and irrational. 

So I toyed with my friend by asking if he thought Donald Trump was abrasive. Trump, of course, is a sitting duck for political pundits and is the current focus of ridicule.

The response, as expected, was obvious, so I asked whether another person, known to both of us, was abrasive. Here was a person that we both would categorize as successful, so our conversation veered towards the characteristics that made this mutual acquaintance’s business a success. 

It captured words like go-getter, tenacious, focused, demanding and yes, at times, abrasive. I am sure you get the drift here. Abrasive is somewhat acceptable as a male characteristic, but not in a female. The penny dropped, but it took some coaxing. So why is that?

In the field of teaching, most of you who are parents already know that male students may believe that studying is "for girls." However, is it your opinion that boys have a proficiency in science and math, and are less inclined towards the arts and languages? It is interesting because a recent study found teacher biases do actually exist and gender stereotypes are negatively affecting girls’ math grades and positively affecting the math grades of boys. 

One report even states that parental and teacher biases are the root cause of the systemic inhibition of diversity in the tech pipeline that organizations face today. If we consider student suspensions in the United States, black girls are suspended twice as much as white boys. This leads to a conclusion that black girls are disproportionately punished for behaviour that is deemed to be just active play in boys. Were the teachers in the study surprised?

Cast your mind back to some of the more recent racial tensions in the U.S. In a 2015 article in Wired entitled “How Science is Helping America tackle Police Racism,” three decades of research in social psychology and neuroscience reveal that even people who say they strongly believe in equality and fairness still show significant patterns of implicit bias. Based on the prevalence of prejudice in numerous laboratory experiments, there was a sobering corroboration of this research with the spate of black men and youths being killed by white police officers.

As much as might like to think otherwise, we all carry some level of unconscious bias. Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, explains the reason for this very simply: We are faced with 11 million pieces of information at any given moment. Unfortunately, the brain can only process about 40 of those bits of information and so it creates shortcuts and uses past knowledge to make assumptions. So the simple fact is that we are handicapped because of the brain’s limitations, but what can we do about it? 

Step #1 might be to join us on April 19th when we tackle the topic of Breaking Bias at our SCNetwork breakfast event.

- See more at: http://www.hrreporter.com/blog/the-corner-office/archive/2016/03/14/breaking-bias#sthash.ajjKhWNK.dpuf

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Ian Hendry

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