A father and his son are in a car accident. The father, dies at the scene and the son, badly injured, is rushed to the hospital. In the operating room, the surgeon looks at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He is my son.”
How can this be?
If your first reaction, like me, is that of puzzlement then you are not alone. This reaction is the hidden unconscious bias that acts up without us noticing. Many men and women react the same way and fail to associate surgeons are females too. As it happens, in this instance, the surgeon was the boy’s mother.
Gender is not the only time where our mind acts up – race, color, nationality, and other stereotypical behaviors are full of such examples. As per a study, less than 15% of American men are over six foot tall, yet almost 60% of corporate CEOs are over six foot tall. I don’t believe this is merely a coincidence nor a deliberate act on part of the board. Reverend Jesse Jackson once said, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life, than to walk down a street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery – then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” Regrettably, this is still true in some parts of the world. And, this is not something that ails only the US – we have heard enough jokes about people from certain backgrounds, creating stereotypes that play unconsciously on our minds.
I am not for a second, suggesting that this happens to bad men or women. Or just because it is happening to nearly everyone, it is okay. As Einstein famously commented, “A little knowledge is dangerous. So is a lot.” I believe, in such matters, no knowledge is equally dangerous. Not knowing that unconscious biases are limiting our team / organization / society / country’s effectiveness is equally grave.
Understanding that these biases exist and influence how we think and act is the first step. Deciding which of the biases we want to address and work on, follows. Consider another example - imagine you are in a queue buying tickets for a game and notice your friend way back. Many among us wouldn’t hesitate to purchase tickets for him because this is what friends do. Interviewing and selecting the same friend at workplace, however, is likely to get us fired and the company sued for discrimination. This dissonance of how one must act in different settings requires conscious effort and cannot be left to gut.
Our mind has made (and continues to) implicit associations on “how things are”, with minimal effort and recognition. I believe not knowing what we don’t know is far worse than knowing what we don’t. And now that you know this, what will you do differently?
PS: You can understand some of your unconscious biases by going to implicit.harvard.edu and taking the available tests.