Is bias fix­able?

NILOFER MER­CHANT

Finweek English Edition - - MANAGEMENT -

As a brown woman, your chances of be­ing seen and heard in the world are next to noth­ing,” the mar­ket­ing guru told me. “For your ideas to be seen, they need to be edgier.” He paused, as if to ru­mi­nate on this. “But if you are edgy, you will be too scary to be heard.” This was his re­sponse when I asked for help with choos­ing the ti­tle for my sec­ond book.

I was con­fused; I couldn’t f ig­ure out how this an­swer re­lated to my orig­i­nal ques­tion. My con­fu­sion grad­u­ally turned to fear. Was some­one fi­nally do­ing me a ser­vice by telling me the truth?

For months af­ter­ward, I was a mess, see­ing frag­ments of ‘truth’ in ev­ery missed op­por­tu­nity or un­ex­pected ob­sta­cle.

Black and white. Mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine. Rich and poor. Im­mi­grant and na­tive. Gay and straight. South­ern and North­ern. Young and old. Each of us can be de­scribed as a se­ries of over­lap­ping iden­ti­ties and roles. And there are ar­gu­ments to be made about how our bi­o­log­i­cal and so­ci­o­log­i­cal pro­gram­ming causes us to shape our per­sonal iden­ti­ties around group struc­tures. But the bot­tom line is this: as a so­ci­ety, we do not see one an­other clearly. We see ab­stract his­to­ries and gen­er­alised as­sump­tions, in­stead of the dis­tinct con­stel­la­tion of in­ter­ests, pas­sions, vi­sions and hopes that makes up each of us.

As David Burkus re­cently wrote in an ar­ti­cle for hbr.org, in­no­va­tion isn’t ham­pered by a lack of ideas, but by an in­abil­ity to no­tice the good ideas that al­ready ex­ist. To see and be seen is es­sen­tial to prob­lem­solv­ing. ‘See­ing’ doesn’t seem like an es­pe­cially hard thing to do, but it is. That’s be­cause of bias. Bias is shaped by broader cul­ture; if some­thing is widely per­ceived to be ‘ true’, then see­ing it neu­trally be­comes much more dif­fi­cult. Recog­nis­ing bias means recog­nis­ing that you are

not im­par­tial and ac­knowl­edg­ing that you pre-screen the world around you by see­ing what you ex­pect to see.

Re­search proves that ev­ery­one is bi­ased. Yet I hear peo­ple declar­ing: “I’m colourblind” or “This place is a mer­i­toc­racy,” when re­al­ity sug­gests some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent. Nate Sil­ver re­cently shared re­search sup­port­ing the hy­poth­e­sis that “those who say they don’t have a gen­der bias ac­tu­ally show a greater gen­der bias”. So say­ing that you aren’t bi­ased shows that, in truth, you are more blind than colourblind. Only when you ac­knowl­edge that you are blind to an is­sue can you be­gin the process of see­ing more clearly.

THE QUES­TION THAT IN­EVITABLY FOL­LOWS IS: CAN BIAS BE

FIXED?

Gail Fairhurst, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cincinnati, has writ­ten sev­eral in­flu­en­tial pa­pers and books on the art of fram­ing. My thoughts on this is­sue are heav­ily in­debted to her. As she de­scribes it, the world we live in to­day is con­ceived and framed in a par­tic­u­lar way. This shapes our ex­pe­ri­ence. Even the lan­guage we use or­ders and re­orders so­cial life. The old guard (Amer­i­cans might read this to be ag­ing, white, male, rich) doesn’t even recog­nise this is­sue of fram­ing. Build­ing on Fairhurst’s idea I would add that for the old guard, the cur­rent nar­ra­tive is not a frame, but “just the way things are”. For them, it

is the ul­ti­mate truth. This is what the mar­ket­ing guru was try­ing to tell me. He never ques­tioned his white male bias, and so he be­lieved that he was just break­ing the bad news to me, like any friend would.

But here’s the good news: a world that has been con­ceived and framed is also a world t hat can be recon­ceived and

re­framed. This alone is pow­er­ful. If you be­lieve that bias is sim­ply an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of cul­tur­ally ac­cepted norms, then you can ex­ert your power and shift those norms.

For in­stance, in many are­nas of power – leg­isla­tive, ex­ec­u­tive, cor­po­rate gov­er­nance, fi­nan­cial – women hold 4%-18% of the roles. And those per­cent­ages have held steady for some time. But in one per­ti­nent cat­e­gory, a quiet shift is start­ing to take place. Ma­jor pub­li­ca­tions that shape the mar­ket­place of ideas were once dom­i­nated by men. In fact, a May 2008 Rut­gers Univer­sity study found that, of all the schol­arly op-eds in The Wall Street Jour­nal, 97% were writ­ten by men. To­day, women rep­re­sent 15%-21% of the by-lines at pub­li­ca­tions like The Wash­ing­ton Post, Slate, and The New York Times, show­ing a 40% im­prove­ment from f ive years ago. This didn’t just hap­pen sud­denly. The pro­gramme be­hind this trans­for­ma­tion was The Op-Ed Pro­ject, which scouts, pre­pares and con­nects un­der­rep­re­sented ex­perts with edi­tors so their pipe­lines are full of vi­able ideas from both gen­ders.

This is a good re­minder that of­ten what ap­pears to be a pipe­line prob­lem is ac­tu­ally a prob­lem with the se­lec­tion process it­self. If mem­bers of un­der­rep­re­sented groups ex­pect that they will not be se­lected, many of them won’t even ap­ply. But the op­po­site can be true, too. For in­stance, Sarah Mil­stein and Eric Ries de­signed the 2013 Lean Startup Con­fer­ence with the in­ten­tion of in­clud­ing a more di­verse group of peo­ple. By shift­ing their think­ing, they in­creased the at­ten­dance of women by 40% and peo­ple of colour by 25%.

Recog­nis­ing that you have a bias al­lows you to de­sign pro­cesses that cor­rect for it; how­ever, first you have to be­lieve in your abil­ity to sway his­tory. One of my favourite sto­ries about this is a rel­a­tively un­known his­tor­i­cal ex­am­ple. In the mid-Fifties when black peo­ple had a hard enough time get­ting gigs, and black women even more so, Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe lob­bied the owner of the famed Mo­cambo club to book Ella Fitzger­ald, promis­ing to take a front ta­ble ev­ery night if he did. The owner said yes, and Mon­roe de­liv­ered: front ta­ble, ev­ery night. The press went over­board to cover th­ese evenings, and with that level of vis­i­bil­ity, Fitzger­ald got the op­por­tu­nity to be seen. (Now just imag­ine if the mar­ket­ing guru at the start of this story had de­cided to go be­yond just re­port­ing and recog­nis­ing bias – telling me, “this is just how it is” – to be­ing an agent of change?)

Bias can be fixed in many ways, in­clud­ing es­tab­lish­ing a more level play­ing field, cre­at­ing an inclusive at­mos­phere or us­ing per­sonal power to con­vince peo­ple to see their world dif­fer­ently. The key is to ac­knowl­edge the pres­ence of bias, and then de­sign so­lu­tions that ad­dress it.

Nilofer Mer­chant is a cor­po­rate di­rec­tor at a Nas­daq-traded firm and a lec­turer at Stan­ford, and for­merly the founder and CEO of Ru­bi­con. Among other For­tune 500 firms, she’s worked at Ap­ple and Au­todesk. She’s the author of The New How and 11 Rules for Cre­at­ing Value in the So­cial Era.

© 2013 Har­vard Busi­ness School Pub­lish­ing Corp. © The New York Times 2013.

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