Is bias fixable?
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
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.