Being in the “diversity and inclusion” field, I think a lot about “bias” – and about whether and how to talk about it. An aspect of this question is the topic of the first in the four-part New York Times series by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. That piece addresses how and “When Talking About Bias Backfires.”
Gender stereotypes, the authors note, “favor men over equally qualified women.” The result is the problem that is the focus of DifferenceWORKS: Women are still not proportionally represented in the higher levels of business. And businesses are missing out on the documented rewards of having gender diversity in leadership.
Grant and Sandberg make these points:
- Raising awareness of bias alone will not overcome bias or barriers.
- Pointing out that it is common to have gender stereotypes and bias may, in fact, normalize and legitimize them.
- Sharing data – for example, on the underrepresentation of women in leadership – and exploring the obstacles that underlie that underrepresentation do not solve the problem.
- Only by expressing disapproval of the biases and resulting barriers can we change the facts on gender diversity in leadership.
In our workshops we do all of the above – except that we avoid the term “bias.” We use McKinsey’s term, “mindsets.” “Bias” seems accusatory, and that could backfire. We share the business case for gender diversity. We show the data on the percentages of women at each level of business and the professions. We engage people in discussion of the barriers facing women at work. And we lead people to acknowledge the unconscious mindsets (aka biases) that underlie those barriers. We do not just say that unconscious mindsets are common; we acknowledge that we all (me, too!) have them.
Do we make it clear that we disapprove, and want to eradicate, these mindsets and the barriers they cause? You bet. We do not judge people for having biases; that is human. We raise awareness about “bias” and about its impact (e.g., disengaging and discouraging women) and costs (e.g., business profitability). We judge the results of bias and work to align people on changing the facts on gender diversity in leadership.
Apparently some people talk about bias without pointing out its negative impact and the need to change how we think – or at least act. That is surprising. And it is easy to change!