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Example of Unconscious Bias in Action: What’s wrong with this picture?

Take a quick look at this image. What does it represent to you? No, it’s not a test about unconscious bias in action but it should be. Let’s analyze this example of unconscious bias in detail.

A perfect example of unconscious bias in action. What do you see when you see this pic? Here's the description used by iStockphoto where both the publisher of the article discussed here and the Red Shoe Movement purchased it: A stylized vector cartoon of a Man and woman's feet playing footsie, the style is reminiscent of an old screen print poster. Suggesting Romance, flirtation, love, attraction, seduction or temptation.

What do you see when you see this pic? Here’s the description used by iStockphoto where both the publisher of the article discussed here and the Red Shoe Movement purchased it: “A stylized vector cartoon of a Man and woman’s feet playing footsie, the style is reminiscent of an old screen print poster. Suggesting Romance, flirtation, love, attraction, seduction or temptation.”

Here are a few things that come to mind when I look at it: A woman rubbing a man’s leg under a table. A seductress in action. A woman coming on to a man. And several variations which you can read in the caption (above) used by iStockphoto to describe the picture to potential buyers.

Let’s Add Context to the Picture: Sexual Harassment?

Now some context. This picture illustrates an article about sexual harassment in a magazine for leaders. The title of the piece is: “How to stop sexual misconduct in the workplace,” a problem that has mostly involved high powered men harassing less powerful women.

Yes, it’s true that there are cases of women harassing men. But this particular piece focuses on solutions for the more pervasive situations that started coming to light following the New Yorker revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation. The illustration is a perfect example of unconscious bias on the part of the publisher.

A Great Example of Unconscious Bias: The Red Shoe

I know you probably think I’m hypersensitive because the shoe is red. And you’d be right. I’m hyper observant of red shoes in real life and on print. But that doesn’t make the pairing of this image with the text any righter. You see, it’s part of why things move so slowly when it comes to changing the culture in our workplaces and our communities. We let slips like this go unchallenged.

This particular article was written by two men and a woman. Granted, they may not have seen the picture the editor picked for their article. But the editor did. And the female president of the publication did as well. And nobody thought there was something wrong with the way the picture contradicted the advice they were giving.

This is how unconscious bias works. It’s unconscious. So you must be trained on how to perceive your own biases and on how to perceive those of others in your environment. Then, you must have the presence of mind to call out what you see at the right time. That is, before going to print. Fixing the workplace is a joint venture. We are all in it together all the time. Regardless of titles or job descriptions. In other words, we should adopt the very effective New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority campaign slogan, which has been licensed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: “If you See Something, Say Something ®”

The picture used to illustrate the article we discuss here reflects an unconscious bias and it contradicts the advice in the article. Example of unconscious bias.

The picture used to illustrate the article we discuss here is a clear example of  unconscious bias and it contradicts the advice in the article.

Unconscious Bias in Action: 4 situations where you should say something

1Colleagues talking about women in a dismissive or derogatory way.

They may not realize that their comments reflect a bias against female colleagues or they may be doing it on purpose. Either way, when this happens in your presence, take a stand. Stop the conversation by pointing out that this kind of talk is damaging. Although it may be hard to do depending on the context and the people doing the talking, it’s imperative to find a way to avoid engaging in the conversation. Clearly, the same applies when the derogatory talk involves men.

Read more about how to become a male ally.

2People making jokes about women (or any other non-majority group.)

These may be the hardest situations to “fix” given that jokes often seem to slide by without much contention. But be aware that they are as damaging as the other examples of unconscious bias discussed here. Not only do they frequently offend women but they also perpetuate the stereotypes they portray: Women as weak, submissive, not smart or as sexual objects.

The best way to intervene? Rather than laughing along, just say something such as:  “That isn’t funny.” Then, when the joker points out your lack of sense of humor, you may reply in a kind voice and a serene demeanor: “How would you feel if I made that joke about your daughter or sister? Or if I told her the joke?” This way you bring the unconscious bias to light and give people a chance to put themselves in the shoes of the group that is the butt of the joke. You can apply the same approach to the previous point.

3Advertising by your company that features women who are unnecessarily scantily dressed (meaning, the ad is not for a product you’d use at the beach.)

There are no lack of examples of ads featuring women in sexy clothes, poses or roles to sell products and services. In a great many of them the women are just eye candy.

This is another example of unconscious bias in action that has a pervasive effect on the image of women. Why not question your creative team or your agency about their decision to use sexy women to generate sales? It may mean they are not that creative after all.

4Starting/Spreading rumors about sexual relationships in the office.

Whether founded or unfounded, rumors are damaging to everyone’s reputation but in the end, they tend to affect women the most. Almost inevitably, going forward, others will assume that these women received a promotion through special favors. An unconscious bias that doesn’t affect men the same way. On top of that, this kind of rumors create tension at home for everyone involved, particularly for those in committed relationships. So, as hard as it is to resist the guilty pleasure of gossiping, do. If for some reason, the information about the affair is relevant to you, your best approach is to discover the source of the rumor to verify its veracity and take action from there.

Changing unconscious biases that are so ingrained in our culture is not easy. By being observant and calling out unacceptable behavior and unconscious slips we can all contribute to creating a workplace that is welcoming to everyone. Is there any example of unconscious bias that comes to mind? Share it with me in the comments section below.