• Gender equality in design: fighting implicit bias with empathy

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    How do implicit biases limit our perspective of other people?

    This article was originally published on Medium.

    For the past six months I have been working on a national year-long research project in collaboration with AIGA’s Women Lead Initiative, looking at the obstacles that inhibit women’s leadership within the design industry. So far in this three-part project, I have conducted 30 face-to-face interviews (24 women and 6 men), have extensively reviewed the current literature and research on the issue, and started to run workshops across the country exploring opportunities for enhancing women’s leadership.

    I would like to share the current hypothesis emerging out of this research:

    in order to get to equality, we need to first start by implementing and fostering policies of equity, whereby people get the support and opportunities needed to help them flourish. And in order to make this a real and rapid change in our workplaces and human interactions, we need to build empathy of the “other.”

    I say the “other” because this is not a one way street. Gender roles and expectations are changing rapidly. Research, such as Hanna Rosin’s look at the shifting roles in America, demonstrates that with this comes a need to respect and appreciate the obstacles and issues that arise from significant social changes. I also use the term “other” because it is almost impossible for any of us to ever truly understand what it is like to be someone else, to have lived through the life experiences that make up another human being, all of which influence their world views and lay the foundations for the explicit (overt) and implicit (covert) biases that feed into inequality.

    It’s all about the implicit bias

    The phenomena “think leader / think man” is built on a stereotypical construct of what an authoritative figure in a position of leadership should be. Strength, charisma, articulation, power, assertiveness, and dominance are all traits considered to be masculine—and all traits that are quintessential of the “leader” character. This chalk outline of a leader being a man is fed by the media, politics, history, and, of course, by the workplace, where most leaders are still men.

    Combine our shared mental frame of leaders being “manly” with the decrease in explicit conversations about gender and discrimination, and you’ve landed at our current status quo, wherein our implicit biases—the mental constructs that we all hold in an unconscious part of our brain—are influencing our day-to-day decisions in silent and pervasive ways.

    This works both ways. Both men and women feed on the same social cues, and so we judge ourselves and others based on the same mental models. The research around this gets complex, but essentially women and men expect leaders to possess the descriptive stereotypical characteristic of a man, yet when women get into positions of leadership, there is an expectation for them to play out the descriptive stereotypes of more feminine personality traits. This inevitably results in a bind, and the reinstallation of gender biases that feed the preexisting mental models that people possess.

    Our brains are filled with mental glitches, built on stereotypes, that influence how we see others. Most of these biases are based on socially constructed norms and rituals that build up over time, forming schemas and creating reference points that our brain then quickly feeds us when we are sizing up and judging others.

    But herein lies the opportunity for changing the ratio and shifting the status quo: we can work to find ways of re-coding the cognitive biases that trigger stereotypes and prejudices of and by the “other.”

    Obstacles are no longer overt but covert

    Implicit biases, and their silent influence, have been found to be the fueling force behind the lack of diversity in positions of leadership. The research has moved from looking at overt sexism and obvious glass ceilings inhibiting women, to sticky floors, glass cliffs, double binds, silent office housework, and benevolent gender bias. Equality has moved from an explicit conversation where we rally against the ass-pinching and sexist slurs, to an implicit one, where we deal with micro-aggressions and silent stereotyping, which is fueling the persistent underrepresentation of women in positions of leadership.

    If any industry should be busting the cognitive restrictions that traditional industries have, you’d think it’d be the young, ‘disruptive’ tech industry. But Diversity in Tech is struggling hard to reach parity, Google employs 70 percent white men and The Verge recently reported on the persistent trend of low diversity rates in Silicon Valley. Just review the data from the 2014 Equal Employment Opportunity report, which details the diversity of the U.S. workforce (EEO-1 report). The report shows Amazon is leading the way with 37 percent women employees, and Facebook has the most women in positions of leadership... at 23 percent.

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    Screenshot from “The Verge” interactive article presenting the data from the EE1 report

    The empathy opportunity

    Empathy is a visceral experience that is triggered to create social connectivity and bonding between humans. It’s a powerful resource, and one that can be built up and triggered in multiple ways. But as a tool for enacting change, I’m not proposing that we will have hug-filled lunch hours to fix this complex and multifaceted issue (although research does show this may help!). Rather, I’m interested in testing ways of incorporating professional empathy building experiences, which are designed to rapidly build an empathetic understanding of others—to help people to be able to understand, without judgment, and to see the inherent value of a person different than oneself.

    My hypothesis is that the positive byproduct of this will not only be a challenging and rewiring of the biases that inhibit the brain, but also that it will form a foundation for building more equitable processes, programs, and policies that foster and celebrate the positive opportunities that diversity offers us all. Lofty goals, I know, but that’s what creative interventions should be: aspirations to shift the status quo for positive social change.

    What does a professional empathy building tool look like? I have for some time been testing simple cognitive interventions through gamified experiences to see what scope there is for rapidly building empathetic understandings of “others.” For this project, I have started to test simple word association exercises that pairs bounce back and forth to gain a quick insight into how another person visually associates the gender of a simple word. I have also been testing peer-to-peer conversational mentoring tools that enable people to share personal insights and experiences in a mutually beneficial way.

    We are in the early days in this phase of the research and design process, but the literature makes very clear that biases drive stereotypes, which build narrow paths for women to progress into positions of leadership. And, simultaneously, these same biases inhibit men from opting into less dominate social roles.

    The fascinating thing about cognitive biases is that they are a replication and representation of current social normative behaviors and values. We have seen them shift considerably over the last few decades when it comes to the social perspectives of women. Therefore, there is a wide scope for fostering more significant change. We are at an exciting and positive position, as science empowers us to access a greater understanding of the ways in which our brain’s’ limbic system influences us, and offers a wide arena for rewriting the social scripts that bind us all.


    I am midway through a one-year project with the AIGA to develop an analog toolkit that can be used from the boardroom to the classroom—empowering empathy to overcome some of the preexisting biases that inhibit equality and leadership opportunities for women.

    Interested? You can join in on one of the next workshops: Seattle, March 29; Los Angeles, April 1; or Dallas Fort Worth, April 7.

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