Bias is a natural tendency and not necessarily bad. I believe we are doing an injustice to try to eliminate bias. Rather, we need to embrace it, understand it and avoid having it adversely impact decisions, diversity and inclusion. Bias is bad when we let it effect the selection of who we hire, how we treat others and when we refuse to listen and debate differences of opinion.
Awareness of Bias
Biases are beliefs that are not founded by known facts about someone, something or about a group of individuals. Daily, we continuously make decisions to engage or trust someone, without all the facts. We must rely on instinct which will include our biases. The phrase, “Birds of a feather flock together” resonates because there is a natural tendency to assume that someone that shares similar looks, beliefs, schooling, hobbies, location is like you and thus you will bond. We call this a “Like Me” Bias. In other situations, we may have inherited biases from our parents or society. These are things we have heard or learned about and believe. Understanding our biases and why we have them will help us be more aware and ensure that they do not consciously or unconsciously influence our decisions regarding diversity and inclusion.
“Like Me” Bias
We all have a bias towards people that are like ourselves. A conversation or relationship is much easier when you are with someone that shares similarities, i.e. the same haircut, interest in sports, love of zombie movies. When there is a similarity the conversation flows.
It is like looking in the mirror. When you meet someone that looks like you, you are almost immediately drawn to them. You feel safe because you assume they are part of your tribe. When you look at a resume and they graduated from your alma mater, you most likely will assume they will fit in well and support the goals to succeed.
Why do we make these assumptions? There are many different theories, but I can relate to some of these explanations discussed in a Psychology Today article. The article talks about how people who share a similarity make us feel more confident in ourselves and choices. If I am talking to someone else that has a few extra pounds, I feel confident that they will not judge my extra weight. When I meet someone else that has traveled solo, I immediately relate to them. I feel validated and proud of my accomplishments. There is a virtuous cycle, as we feel positive about that person, through our commonality we feel more positive about ourselves. We then assume that the other person, like us, has other positive characteristics. The talk track then continues, “if we have this in common, they are probably very like me, so we will have more fun hanging out.”
“Like Me” bias is not necessarily bad. It provides the basis to engage in conversations and learn the facts to either support your initial instinct or change your mind once you have the facts. The challenge is when you exclude others that are not like you; perhaps you assume there is nothing you will have in common, discount their ability to fill a role or worst yet, do not trust them and ignore them completely.
Whether we want to believe it or not, much of our biases have been inherited from our parents and society. For example, one common bias is that women are weak (despite many being very strong). Another is that blacks are dishonest (when most aren’t). Another is that obese people are lazy (when their weight may be due to any of a range of factors, including disease). At some point, perceptions and biases become our reality.
Many biases are built as a result of fear. When we don’t understand someone or something it is easier to simply exclude, ignore or dislike. Just as we feel validated when someone is like us, we feel uneasy when someone is different. It makes us question whether we are the minority, the weird one, etc. When I am talking to someone slimmer than me, the talk track may shift to embarrassment or disappointment in myself. Rather than get to know the person, I may find a way to avoid them and everyone else slimmer than me, resulting in a bias against slender individuals. If I feel this way, I may teach this bias to my kids. When you say something enough times, those things become truth.
“You run like a girl” Bias
Some biases can absolutely be detrimental and one that I am often pontificating against. There is an ad from Always that explains this phenomena so much better than I could ever, so if you have a moment, check it out. In short, ask an 18 and a 5-year-old to run like a girl. The younger girl will run hard, the same as a boy. The 18-year-old will most like show you how the world perceives a girl to run; flailing her arms, giggling and distracted. Why is there a difference between the two? It is because of society’s bias and portrayal in TV, movies, and conversations. The 18-year-old has learned to believe that this is how girls should run. When bias becomes the reality, awareness is critical to start to overcome it.
Value of Diversity
Think about your friends. Are they all like you? When I think about my circle of friends, they do not all look like me, not in the least. I have friends from all over the world, every walk of life, most races, religions, political beliefs, you name it, we are a diverse group. However, they are very much like me. I have a preference to hang with people that have a passport, are optimistic, think out of the box, chooses freedom over fear and can find the extraordinary in ordinary. There is comfort in being with people that are like us and there is nothing wrong with that. It is important to recognize our natural tendency and ensure that we do not exclude someone or something because it is different.
Bias is bad when we end up only engaging with others that are exactly like us, or we make assumptions about people that are unfounded and based upon the biases. It has been proven that teams, communities, countries, governments and companies work better when there is diversity. Different interests, different ways of thinking, different experiences all help us solve problems faster and more comprehensively. According to the Harvard Business Review , “The other diversity dividend”, the success rate of acquisitions and IPOs was 11.5% lower, if the equity partners were from the same school, 26.4% when shared the same ethnicity. Venture Capitalists that increased their proportion of female partner hires by 10% saw, on average, a 1.5% spike in overall fund returns each year and had 9.7% more profitable exits. The math backs up to the statement. Diversity is key to driving change and success. More to come on this topic.
In my previous blog Why is ‘You throw like a girl’ an insult? I wrote about Unconscious Bias and how unhealthy it is in business and society. It is time that we all recognize that bias is natural. It is ok to have biases preferences, but it is critical that we recognize all of them and do not continue to make decisions based upon them without getting to know the individual person or situation. Diversity is becoming a competitive advantage.