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Unconscious Bias: How we discriminate without realizing it

"The lecture was good, but the best thing was that you were cute to watch." The man smiled and laughed it off as an innocent comment, but I became uneasy and wondered if he really meant it.


This blog post is an excerpt from the book, Hvem Spanderer? Written by Marie Louise Sunde and Isabelle Ringnes, co-founders of Equality Check. It has been transalted from Norwegian to English. You can order a copy of the book in Norwegian here.

It is not allowed to discriminate against women anymore?

Isabelle tells her story from when she was invited to give a speech during a party at NHO's annual conference in 2017, where all of Norway's most important senior leaders would be present.

"I had practiced for many weeks and got a good response from the room. When I finished, a man came over and said, "The talk was great, but the best thing was that you were cute to look at." The man smiled and laughed it off as an innocent comment, but I became uneasy and wondered if he really meant it.

A year later, I was sitting in a meeting in Oslo where I had been called in to make a TV series about technology. After a long discussion, the manager stood up, clearly relieved of the outcome of the meeting. He looked at me and smiled before saying, "Yes, I must admit that I have been skeptical of you. I was afraid you would appear laughable, but I realize now that you have some substance."

I was frustrated by his comment, but nodded politely and expressed that I understood what he meant; I use skirts, have long blonde hair, and definitely do not fit the typical technology nerd stereotype. It took time before I realized what these comments insinuate, but this is often the case with unconscious bias.

I regret that I have not spoken up in these moments. Here I was in a meeting with a man who knew I had a master's degree in media and management, had a say in one of the world's foremost think tanks in technology, and had over 100 lectures on the subject under my belt- and then he claimed he was afraid I would ridicule them? I declined the assignment.

Since meeting with the editor, I have lectured to many thousands of people in several important forums. Even after becoming faculty at Singularity University Nordic, a think tank started at NASA Ames Research Park which annually attracts top executives from all over the world, I still receive these types of comments.

"I don't care about gender, I just want the best candidate," we hear leaders say. We believe that we make choices based on merit and that we are not influenced by another person's gender, background, or orientation. To what extent is this true?

The idea of ​​gender blindness was put to the test for the first time in the 1970s in the United States. At the time, the American Philharmonic Orchestras consisted mostly of male musicians. The low proportion of women was justified by the fact that the few women who actually took the entrance exams were inferior to their male competitors. An orchestra decided to conduct the entrance exam by leaving the candidates behind a canvas during the rehearsal, in order to evaluate the performers' musical talents more objectively. Claudia Goldin and Cecile Rouse describe the result in an article published in 2000: The proportion of female musicians who moved on from rehearsals increased significantly. Several orchestras have since introduced this scheme, and the proportion of women in the five largest orchestras has doubled.

In 2015, Tankesmien Agenda and Markedshøyskolen reproduced a study that was first conducted at Harvard University in the early 2000s. The study is about gender and leadership roles. The students were to read a text about a successful leader. The Norwegian text was about the manager's education from NTNU and the London School of Economics (LSE), followed by an impressive career in McKinsey & Co and Statoil, and about the current position in a large US oil company. Finally, there was a bit about spouses and children. Half of the students received the text in which the character was named Hans, the other half received a text in which the character was named Hanna. After reading the text, the students were asked to characterize the person. The study is about whether the students differentiate the person depending on whether it is a woman or a man.

When the study was conducted in Norway, many were surprised by the results. Despite the fact that the story and descriptions of the character in the text were identical, the students considered Hanna as an inferior leader, that she was "bossy", and more selfish than Hans. Perhaps even more surprisingly, in 2015, Norwegian students did not respond remarkably differently to US students 15 years earlier. It was also interesting that the men rated Hanna more stringent than the female students did. Among the male students, only 24 percent liked Hanna, compared to 75 percent who liked Hans. The men considered Hanna a worse parent, more selfish, and more unsympathetic than Hans. They would much rather work for, collaborate with, and have a beer after work with Hans.

The female students also considered Hanna to be more selfish, bossy, and a worse leader than Hans, but stated in return, that they liked Hanna better, had more desire to work for her, considered her trustworthy and felt she was a better parent than Hans. The reason for this difference may be that the women were more able to see themselves in Hanna and thus more positive towards her. However, women are not free from unconscious bias.

Why do we think Hans is a better leader than Hanna? In the book What Works, Iris Bohnet at Harvard has written about this topic extensively. Without thinking twice about it, we often regard men as natural leaders, solutions-oriented, and actionable, while women are expected to be caring and empathetic. The story of an uncompromising, successful female leader does not fit the stereotype of what we think a woman should be. She cannot be both a strong leader and a caring mother. Hans fits with the gender stereotype, Hanna does not. Therefore, it is easier for us to like Hans, and dislike Hanna.

Another explanation for why students like Hans better may be the phenomenon that Norwegian comedian Harald Eia wrote in his chronicle "Men who love men" published on NRK Ytring in 2015. In the controversial chronicle, Eia reflected on why men appreciate the recognition from other men more than they do women. He compared praise from women with rubies, and praise from men with dollars. Eia explained that he had always believed that the same was true of women; that women appreciated recognition from other women more.

After following a debate about whether male essayists received more attention on social media than female ones, he discovered that women also appreciate male recognition more than female recognition. Eia wrote: "And as I read it, I thought; Oh come on now! Can't you soon admit how it is! Why can't you just say what all men know, I can't even say 'most of us', because of course there are exceptions, but it's not the exceptions that create the pattern, we are others, and the truth is: What men do interest us more than what women do.” The chronicle received many strong reactions when it was published. However, Eia may be right - but he was a messenger of a truth we do not like to face.

An increasing number of studies over the last decades show that our assumption that we evaluate people regardless of gender is wrong. Unconscious gender discrimination is about how we meet, experience, and treat people differently based only on gender, without being conscious of why. Precisely because the individual episodes may seem random, and because they are so deeply ingrained in our culture, these patterns are often difficult to identify. And in particular, it is difficult to see and understand for people who have not experienced stereotypical prejudice themselves. Unconscious bias does not only occur against women and minorities. Men are also met by stereotypical attitudes, and it starts as early as in kindergarten.

We have divided unconscious discrimination into various subgroups to make the phenomenon easier to identify:

  • Unconscious language discrimination
  • Different expectations based on gender
  • Unconscious underestimation of women
  • Rationalization of decisions
  • Trivialization of events
  • Ridicule
  • Sexualized jargon and behavior
  • Conditioning - normalizing behavior
  • Exclusion
  • Visibility
  • Invisibility

Does this apply to you?

It is important to point out that it is not only men who discriminate on the basis of gender. In an online study developed by researchers from the University of Washington, Virginia, and Harvard University called the Implicit Project, anyone can measure their preconceived attitudes (unconscious bias) based on a variety of factors such as gender, background, ethnicity, and age.

The test categorizes a number of topics in the fastest possible time. It makes you aware of some of the unconscious attitudes you may have toward different people, such as how the majority of people subconsciously prefer white over dark-skinned, slender rather than thick and heterosexual over gay. Over 200,000 people have taken the test, which measures whether people unconsciously associate women with family and men with careers. A whopping 76% of all men and women who have taken the test do just that.

We have made a Norwegian version of this test. So far, nearly 10,000 people have completed the test, about two-thirds of those who have started have completed, and about two-thirds of them are women. Nearly 80% are under 40 years old.

There is an overrepresentation of young women who are probably above average conscious on the topic of gender equality, and one would assume that this group would not have unconscious prejudices against women. Yet, almost a third of them associate men more with careers, and women more with family. The fact that such a uniform group of young, female equality enthusiasts also have strong unconscious gender stereotypes underpins the depth of the phenomenon. Under a fifth of the group associate women more with career, and men more with family. You can try it yourself at tatesten.no. (Norwegian)

How do we solve this?

One way individuals can make a positive, lasting impact is by using your voice to help drive change. We have created a tool that lets employees rank their workplace in different areas such as work-life balance, management's commitment to equality and diversity, and more. Each review that is created will help bring us closer to creating more transparent workplaces for everyone.

If you haven't already, join the 6,500 people who have reviewed their workplace at equalitycheck.it.

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