Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hidden Bias... the secret stumbling block

On Friday, the House passed the Gender-based Pay Discrimination Act for victims to sue for more money and require employers to meet a higher standard to justify pay disparities. This is an important piece of legislation to combat an insidious type of sexism that has been embedded deeply within the national consciousness. Many employers will find this legislation offensive because they do not think of themselves as sexist at all.

However, as the economy gets worse, we will see more sexism, along with all of the other "isms," coming out of the closet as well (statistics). The interesting thing is that the people who are sexist don't actually see themselves in that light at all. They have a sexist bias that is actually hidden from their awareness. They perceive themselves as behaving in a forthright and honest manner and see themselves as good people who would never be sexist. They are blind to their own sexist behavior. In other words, they believe that they would never “not hire” someone because they were a woman, or for that matter a man. However, they rationalize their not hiring of a particular individual (because of a sexist bias) by hyper-focusing on the detractors of that individual. These same detractors would be given less emphasis on someone with whom they did not experience a sexist bias.

This is called a confirmation bias. We use this bias to confirm our unconscious desired outcome. In the process, we unconsciously seek out the proof to support our bias while ignoring any contrary data. We believe we can’t be biased because we are “good guys” and therefore any reason we have for not accepting the other person is attribute to the evidence we have selectively culled out to form our opinion. This process is known as self-justification.

Their bias causes them to have a tendency to judge their recipient more harshly than another, although the biased individual is blind to this behavior. Their internal bias would have them ultimately reject the candidate out of the system for "other" reasons for which they feel well justified. This includes pay raises. This makes the bias self-reinforcing and therefore they never see that they are acting in a biased manner. They see themselves as being right and feel that any reasonable person would agree with their "rightness." To them, anyone who disagrees with their way of thinking is obviously not seeing the situation clearly.

In that same vein, we tend to hire and promote people who remind us of ourselves. In second place, we will hire and promote people who try to emulate us. For that reason, employers are frequently biased in their hiring, promoting and pay raise practices even when they sincerely protest such accusations. They, like most of us, are blind to their biases.

How do we know if we are biased? That is a very difficult thing to ascertain all on your own. Generally, these biases are blind spots in our personality that we just don’t see without some type of external source reflecting them back to us. The best way to discover biases is to talk to your friends. Ask them about their impressions of you and any biases they might detect. Also, listen very closely to criticisms you might receive from others. Criticisms often carry important information about the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge. This information can have value even if it’s delivered in a negative way. The more reactive you are to the criticism, the more you may need to pat attention to what’s being said.

The way to overcome your newly discovered biases is to put aside your self-justifications and take responsibility for your behavior and address the problem.

For more information on understanding bias log onto LAtherapist.com or for more information on self-help downloads, and to listen to free samples, log onto The Dr. Walton Series at HypnoCD.com.

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