Why Nobody Stopped Harvey Weinstein and the Invisible Evils of Bias

Will Marré

October 30, 2017

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I felt a combination of admiration and anger Saturday morning as I listened to a speech by Dr. Gloria McNeal at National University in La Jolla, CA. When she finished, my colleague, Adriana, was in tears, and I held my head in my hands. She holds a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and is Dean of the School of Health and Human Services at National University. Her career is nothing short of mind-blowing. She has won over $13,000,000 in grants over the course of her 40-year career, which has produced breakthroughs in the quality and accessibility of community health in the neediest areas of American cities.

Gloria grew up in the projects of Philadelphia and could not competently read or write when she graduated from the eighth grade. Elementary school was so full of violence that survival was the main criteria for success. But every step of her journey forward was blocked by prejudice and bias against her birth lottery position of being a black woman. She was told by a college professor in front of her entire class that she was not fit to attend an Ivy League school and that someone with her limitations would be more comfortable in an all-black college. She earned an A in that class because she outworked her classmates and outfoxed her professor. And that was only the beginning of her lifelong battle to give her gift in spite of constant prejudice. Authoritarian white people were made so nervous by her drive and creativity, that they consistently tried to prevent her doing well only because she was an ambitious black woman.

Gloria got me thinking. Bias is a talent killer. It makes people small. It also emboldens powerful people to exploit anyone who is not in their favored group. After doing some deeper research, bias also seemed to answer the question: how might Harvey Weinstein have gotten away with being a sexual predator for decades? It's all about bias and its evil twin, favoritism.

Here is what we all need to know about our bias:

  • All of us are biased and prejudiced in favor of people whom we judge to be in 'our group' and against people we exclude from our group. Prejudice is human. Our brains are constantly sorting other people into potential enemies and friends who psychologically represent either threats or opportunities. The question is not whether we are biased. Rather it is whether we are self-aware enough to transcend our bias and see people as individuals, rather than members of groups.

  • Virtually all humans seek belonging, acceptance, and community. We mentally segregate groups by both exaggerating the positive, common characteristics of 'our' group, and assign exaggerated negativity to the characteristics of people we lump into other groups. For instance, uneducated people become "stupid and lazy." We also minimize differences within our group and emphasize how 'outsiders' are different in ways that threaten our status or safety.

  • High-status people tend to believe in the Just World Theory. This is a theory of life reflected in what was called the divine right of kings in the Middle Ages. This theory advocates the belief that people who are born to powerful and wealthy families have advantages and are chosen by God to rule over common people who are not favored by God. People who are poor or sick, or a member of an ethnic minority, are simply living out their destiny. (India's caste system was/is an insidious concept woven into the culture by wealthy people who wanted a permanent servant class.) Although democracy overthrew the justification of bias and class distinction by the divine right of kings, Americans reinvented the Just World Theory to view white British and Northern European males as God's favorite people. Africans were viewed as divinely created to be slaves to the "chosen" white males. Today the Just World Theory lives on through the myth that success and wealth is the result of good character and that poverty and misfortune comes only to those who are lazy and undeserving of better things. Under the Just World Theory, people simply get what they deserve. So, if you're rich, healthy, and happy, you deserve it. If you're poor, abused, sick, black, or a single mother, somehow you deserve it. The Just World Theory absolves people with advantages of any moral responsibility to help those less fortunate. (This is the argument that Congressman and Jason Chaffetz made regarding the reason poor people can't afford health insurance is that they spend their money on iPhones.)

  • High-status people tend to be both authoritarian, socially dominant, and categorical (either/or) thinkers. Research shows that they are more likely to hold low opinions of low-status people and blame them for their low status.

  • Members of favored groups are more tolerant of the failures, mistakes, and flaws of their group members than outsiders. (Thus, high-status white males are less likely to be critical of Harvey Weinstein's or Bill O'Reilly's alleged sexual assaults and harassments because Harvey and Bill are also high-status white males. It seems natural the good old boys protect good old boys ... it's the code. It also explains why members of a political party will be supportive and tolerant of the mistakes and flaws of their leader while being viciously critical of much smaller flaws and errors by members of the other party.) High-bias people also tend to overestimate the flaws, number, and severity of failures of the out-group. For example, researchers who do a content analysis of news stories report that when male-led companies fail to perform, situational factors are cited as the primary cause. When female-led company's struggle, the female CEO's competence is questioned on average three times more than male CEOs in similar stories.)

  • Individuals with high ego drive generally have psychological needs for admiration and power. Research indicates that high ego drive results in personalities that tend to be both confident and insecure. When I first started coaching powerful executives, I was amazed to find this combination of confidence and insecurity to be so common. I found that insecurity often comes from inner doubts about intrinsic self-worth. This seems to inflame a need to bolster one's self-esteem by over-identifying with group status. Put simply, the inner logic of a powerful but insecure person is that "I must be superior because I am a member of a superior group." This is why many members of an executive "club," such as a senior leadership team or Board of Directors, are so reluctant to criticize incompetence or bad behavior of people like them. This represents a strong business case for leadership diversity.

  • Bias creates the most unjust effects when differences between a favored group and unfavored group are minimal. For instance, when qualifications for advancement are not clear or competing candidates' performance have similar qualifications, the benefit of the doubt goes to members of the favored group. This "favoring the favorites" may explain why in technology companies, when one woman is competing for advancement against three or more men, the chances of a woman winning the promotion are less than 10%. It just seems natural for members of the favored group to self-justify why they prefer people who are like themselves. (Self-justification is making up reasons to justify our biases.)

  • The 'Bias Effect' has been confirmed by social research experiments that people who feel their performance is being judged by biased people experience performance pressure which creates anxiety and hampers their performance. Over 200 studies have shown that people tend to behave according to the expectations of those in authority. When female students are told they must try harder on their math tests because women aren't good at math, they make more mistakes than female students who are told nothing. When random students are told they were selected to take a math test because they are part of a group that has been pre-selected because of innate mathematical ability, they outperform randomized students and control groups. Thus, working cultures that overtly or subtly communicate to women or minorities that they aren't smart enough for science and technology jobs disempower the performance of un-favored employees.

  • Objectifying women hurts their performance. It's true: sexual harassment is not just a legal or social problem, it also inhibits talent. In one of the weirdest experiments I've read about, female students were asked to wear their swimsuits to take a math test. These students performed measurably less than control groups of female students dressed normally. Interestingly, males performed equally well in bathing suits or blue jeans. Although this experiment seems a bit extreme, it is true that when women are objectified or feel that sexual harassment is tolerated in the workplace, this added stress inhibits their engagement, contribution, and self-determination.

  • Dismissive sexism occurs when men claim bias against women no longer exists. Dismissive sexists often become antagonist towards women's leadership groups and women who challenge the status quo. (Dismissive racism follows the same pattern.)

  • Patronizing sexism occurs when males approve of and support women who accept traditional roles and submissive styles. (Many women become co-dependent with patronizing men because it creates the illusion of enhanced status and security. This is the 'Mad-Men' effect).

  • **Find the bias research studies and experiments here: http://www.understandingprejudice.org/apa/english/page6.ht

    Also, research Janet Swim, a Google scholar from Penn State, if you want to learn more about bias and sexism. https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=9r4wt_IAAAAJ&hl=en

    Being the victim of bias is exhausting. The constant feeling that you have to be perfect or twice as good to get the opportunities you deserve is both discouraging and exceptionally stressful. That's why workplace bias has such a negative effect on talent.

    Here are six proven strategies you might want to use to conquer the effects of bias.

  • Immerse your mind with high-achieving role models. Women and minorities who read about or watch videos of successful members of their group are much more apt to be more persistent and assertive in driving for achievement.

  • While it may be a tendency to avoid biased bosses or coworkers the most powerful way to melt bias is to create positive shared experiences. So, try to intentionally increase positive contact and share success stories with people who may not respect you because they do not know you. Of course, some people are just bad, meaning their prejudice defines them. It may not be worth it to try to open a mindset in concrete. You must figure out how to do "workarounds" so their prejudice does not limit you.

  • Remind members of the favored group that you are all members of the larger group. Remind them that you share values, goals, and priorities and that you have unique perspectives, experiences, and abilities that are valuable to the team. Emphasize your common goals and that you have a common fate to succeed or fail together.

  • Explicitly express to members of the favored group your shared values and standards that they may be questioning. Since many males unfairly believe that women are overly cautious, non-competitive, and too 'feel-good" oriented, I coach women to openly express that they want to "get into action and beat the competition, and thus need to get everyone on board now!"

  • Use your emotional intelligence to be seen as an individual, rather than the stereotype that is rattling around in the heads of superficial thinkers.

  • Summon the courage to recruit powerful allies to expose and crush people who are criminally biased. Our children need us to oppose the evils of today, so they do not inherit a world full of evils that we should have extinguished.

  • The bottom line . . .

    Bias is real, and it is powerful.
    You are not insane.
    You are not whining.

    Use your gifts and strengths to neutralize bias, or fight it outright when you must. We need everyone's talent and voice if we are going to create a better world. And the world must get better now, or it will get far worse.

    Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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