The human brain is a marvellously efficient machine capable of processing incredible amounts of information and input at lightning speed. It accomplishes this in part by creating little subroutines to deal with very specific circumstances very quickly. For example, each time I need to make a right turn while driving, my ‘right turning’ subroutine is invoked and I carry out a series of actions and decisions with great speed and little conscious thought. We possess thousands of such routines, which are extremely useful provided they are based on good information. Over time, the repeated use of these little decision-making thought-routines, create in us unconscious biases or preferences. For example, I prefer to sit on the right side of a bus or plane. I can’t tell you why, but after repeatedly being presented with the choice, my mind automatically makes that decision and I find myself choosing the right side.
This same mechanism can get us into trouble when we create unconscious biases based on erroneous information. This is especially true when the biases are used for our personal interactions. Even if we do not agree with a certain bias, the unconscious nature of this issue can mean we are unwitting participants. For example, see if you can spot the unconscious bias embedded in this seemingly innocent portion of a job posting: “We are looking for a Project Team Member who is ambitious, driven and competitive”.
I recently had the privilege of speaking at a Professional Women’s Conference and was saddened but not surprised to hear that negative biases of all sorts are alive and well in the workplace. We have a long way to go to eliminate negative biases, not the least of which are those surrounding gender. Gender biases attribute certain characteristics to gender (alone) and purport them to be accepted social norms. Unconsciously, traits such as Drive, Decisiveness, and Competitiveness have been deemed “male”. Likewise, traits such as Nurturing, Supportive, and Cooperative have been unconsciously deemed “female”. These biases often lead to a negative perception of those who do not identify with the gender-assigned trait. A woman with drive is deemed ‘bossy’ (or worse) and a supportive or cooperative man is deemed ‘weak’.
In reality, these unconscious gender biases are based on erroneous information. In the case of behaviour traits such as, Drive, Decisiveness, Nurturing, and Supportiveness, it is well established in psychology that these are, in fact, personality styles that everyone and anyone possesses. Entire cultures have somehow over time managed to miss this fundamental psychological truth! Training in ‘Personality Styles’ presents organizations with an opportunity to correct this situation and introduce their people to an alternative basis for a new “thought subroutine” regarding behaviour traits. Readily available Personality assessments are a highly effective (and fun) means of dealing with trait-based biases in a positive learning environment. As people come to understand different personality styles and identify these traits in the people around them gender biases are broken down and the emotional intelligence of the whole organization rises.