The Incredible Obstacles to Overcoming Bias

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Any time you judge someone on a basis other than merit, it diminishes your firm. Most advisors would agree with that statement. They would oppose more obvious forms of discrimination, like overt sexual harassment and hiring and promotion decisions based on gender, race, religion or sexual preference.

While this is encouraging, there’s a more insidious form of discrimination that’s rarely discussed, but equally pernicious. And it’s incredibly difficult to overcome.

A devastating test

As reported in this article in Newsweek, Nicole Lee Hallberg was employed in a small company doing revisions of resumes for clients, primarily in the technology sector. She and her co-worker, Martin R. Schneider, worked together, doing the same work. Interactions with clients took place entirely online.

Hallberg often complained to Schneider about the sexism she experienced from clients and other employees.

As an experiment, she and Schneider decided to use each other’s e-mail signatures to see how clients would react. They told clients they were being transferred to a new editor, but they actually continued to interact with their clients as they had in the past, and just switched each other’s names. They also interacted with new clients using each other’s signature.

Here’s how they reported on this experience:

Hallberg had “a great week.” "People were more receptive, taking me more seriously. They assumed I knew what I was doing. I didn't have to prove it to them." Her clients expressed fewer suggestions and doubts.

Schneider described his experience as “hell” stating, “[E]verything I asked or suggested was questioned. Clients I could do in my sleep were condescending. One asked if I was single."

While this story is anecdotal, the experience of Schneider and Hallberg is supported by more elaborate studies.

In one study of an online course, students rated an instructor with a male identity higher than a female instructor, regardless of the actual gender of the instructor.

Another study found members of a science faculty gave higher ratings to applicants for a position of lab manager to those with male names. The applicants were randomly assigned male and female names.

This form of gender discrimination isn’t overt. It’s unlikely those who made these judgments were even aware of their bias.

That’s why it’s so troubling.