Recent revelations about banks paying women less for the same job seemed to surprise everyone, yet nobody, given the recent wake up call that we aren’t as avant garde on equality as we once thought.
Let’s assume good intentions for now and review the brain science behind managers and leaders’ decisions to promote and pay men more than women for the same job.
How is this still all happening in 2018? Simply put, it is our brains fault and how we give the benefit of the doubt to certain people based on their social identity (sex, race, nationality, class etc) and the associative brain process kicks in. Basically, what we have seen before generates positive and negative stereotyping that we silently attribute without knowing the individual (if we let that happen).
The brain and the way it processes information actually puts association to things in the ‘collection’ stage of data which was not previously believed to be the case. Literally if you see (or moreover don’t realize you have just seen) four red cars go past and then a blue one, your brain is busy assigning category and value to observed data without your conscious knowledge or permission. Likewise, pattern breaking is hard for the brain regarding that a leader/techie/mechanic/astronaut looks like based on images it has seen before.
Many social psychologists, naming two here; Chris Argyris (and his ladder of inference which can be used today by you in meetings for better bias breaking) and Virginia Schein have been telling us for years that we think our way into biased decisions unconsciously is based on our own beliefs. Now, neuroscience concurs that our brains trick us into thinking some people belong in a job because of their category type and the implicit value assigned to it. Notice use the of word “belong” because deserving on actual present moment merit has nothing to do with past patterns of other people’s performance. The average brain in its categorization of things and does not even attempt to predict future shapes and sizes of anything, hence it was Steve Jobs and not just anyone who could think up the iPod by looking at the walkman. It does however work pretty hard to tell you what is unfamiliar to you as Dr Banaji and colleagues’ impressive body of work on cognition and unconscious bias work has shown around ethnicity and gender.
So, here is the bad news, even as a woman your brain exercises bias against other women. Your whole life you have lived in the operating system of the patriarchy with more boys and men in leading roles from the first book you read, first job worked at, to the movies you watch. Then there is the messaging you heard from your grandparents and everyone else around you and how you were supposed to be as a girl and then a “young lady” then a nice woman. If you broke from heteronormative cisgender or even ethnicity molds, you got to have a pejorative label. Sound familiar? You can be a nice or nasty women and that doesn’t even begin to address the intersectionality issues that create much worse dichotomies or lose-lose stereotypes for non majority grouped people.
There is good news and that is you can override your cognitive processes. Recently, 3 out of 10 school children when asked to draw a scientist drew a woman. That is the best ratio we have ever seen, but we have ways to go.
You can start to be conscious of your thoughts and feelings in crucial moments like hiring and challenge your own assumptions around the constructs and paradigms you are holding. Put them on the table, shed light on them and see if they serve you and your mission? If you espouse a goal or a way of being, what are you actually doing behaviorally and not doing to achieve that goal?
How do your thought patterns match up to the person who you say you are? How do your unconscious beliefs help or hinder you at work?