experiments in unconscious bias: part i
A CEO shares his observations
by contributing author Suri Surinder
Co-Founder & CEO of CTR Factor
If you think unconscious bias is just one more phrase that pays for diversity consultants, and doesn’t exist in real life as much as they say it does, try this out.
If you are a corporate professional with a college education, and happen to be male, the next time you are traveling or out and about in town, try wearing earrings, and tell me what you find.
I did. For a couple of weeks.
Those of you that know me know how incongruous that sounds. Stop laughing. And those of you that don’t, trust me when I say that my personality and earrings don’t go together.
But I wanted to see if people’s reactions to me changed subtly and imperceptibly as a result of this, as part of a series of experiments I am doing on unconscious bias, with me as the subject.
Here is what I found.
People treated me with less visible respect and more camaraderie, with less formality and more joviality, when I wore earrings. They heard me less, and talked to me more. They asked me less, and told me more. They used the word “man” more often when they addressed me, and assumed that I drank and smoked more often. Corporate warriors like myself tended to avoid conversations on planes with me more, and blue collar, salt-of-the-earth individuals bonded with me better.
Perhaps most importantly, my own demeanor and expectations changed when I wore earrings. If I hadn’t been deliberately more self aware, I would have missed it.
Our mind makes up stories about ourselves and others more than we might imagine, to simplify life and explain things we may not understand. In many cases, this is useful. In some, it is not. The key is to figure out when it is, and when it isn’t, when to be reflective, and when to be reflexive.
I have retired my earrings, but my unconscious bias experiments will continue. The results of my next one are forthcoming. Stay tuned.