The Evil of Unexamined Stereotypes


The End of Bias: A Beginning: Science and Practice to Overcome Unconscious Bias

Author: Jessica Nordell

Editor: Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt & Co

Price: $ 28.99

Pages: 353

The varieties of horror are endless, with people abusing each other for a number of reasons, but in The end of prejudices, Jessica Nordell guides us through bad behavior of a particular type. Instead of the “unvarnished cruelty” of the person who willfully inflicts pain, she draws our attention to something less brash and more insidious: the harm people do without thinking and unwittingly because they nurture. unexamined stereotypes.

“Most people don’t go into their profession with the goal of hurting others or providing disparate treatment,” Ms. Nordell writes, saying the gap between what people believe and what they do can be hypocrite, but it also offers the possibility of change. “If people come to see that they themselves inadvertently discriminate but also value fairness and equality, that awareness can be a call to action. People want to be consistent internally.

Reassuring lines like these could make The end of prejudices It sounds like an innocuous, standard business book, but Ms Nordell, a science journalist with a poetry degree, is too thoughtful a thinker to make this another well-meaning tribute to the importance of diversity education. In fact, when it comes to diversity training itself, “the results are often mixed,” she writes. Managers may feel that their autonomy is compromised, with white males in some cases reacting to pro-diversity messages as if they face a cardiovascular threat. Employees of color may feel like they are being turned into a spectacle – supposed to “teach” whites and serve “as an instrument for the self-improvement of others.”

But leaving employees to fend for themselves can make the problem worse. Ms Nordell cites a study in which nearly 90% of respondents said their own objectivity was above average – and this belief in one’s own objectivity was more correlated with discrimination against others.

The book begins with the story of Ben Barres, a transgender neurobiologist who made the transition into his forties and was surprised to realize how much his ideas and authority had been previously devalued – “not overtly, in general, but d ‘in a way that was noticeable when this sudden devaluation disappeared. ” It is this subtlety – its ordinary banality – that leads some skeptics to wonder how everyday prejudices really matter. In 2011, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a majority opinion in a class action lawsuit filed by women working at Walmart; Scalia argued that these women could not have been denied promotions and directed to low-paying positions because there was no evidence of a concerted effort to keep women down.

“Most managers in any company – and surely most managers in a company that prohibits gender discrimination – would choose gender neutral and performance-based hiring and promotion criteria that do not. produce no exploitable disparities, ”Scalia wrote (a claim that gives the“ distinct impression, ”Ms. Nordell writes,“ that Scalia never had a job ”).

What he did not consider was the possibility that individual acts of discrimination could add to huge company-wide disparities, says Ms. Nordell. Workplaces, to say nothing of societies, are complex systems that the human brain can struggle to comprehend as a whole, and therefore people often come back to explaining discrimination in layman’s terms, i.e. say that they come back to explaining it, as the inevitable result of differences between groups. Or they try to minimize it – dismiss prejudices like the problem of a few bad apples that don’t necessarily have the power to shape an entire corporate culture.

Wanting to understand the dynamics of bias – how it can generate feedback loops with cumulative effects – Ms. Nordell teamed up with a computer scientist to create a simulation of a fictional company called NormCorp, where there was a difference in 3% in the way women and men were treated. At the end of the simulation, 82% of NormCorp executives were men.

This dimension of bias, as something that occurs over time, is an essential part of Ms. Nordell’s analysis. Too often people think in terms of quiet moments – a degrading meeting here, a fleeting commentary there – but Ms. Nordell points out that the bias is often iterative and chronic, occurring over many interactions. The effect is cumulative, not only for the company but for the person who is subject to it. She cites research suggesting that subtle bias can in some cases be more damaging than overt bias, as navigating ambiguity is so mentally and emotionally taxing. This can leave people “to question their own perceptions”, she writes, “a kind of internal lighting”.

As Ms. Nordell knows, the very concept of unconscious bias can seem exculpatory – suggesting that people cannot be responsible for something if they are not aware of it. But it’s not a book that gets anyone off the hook. On the contrary, The End of Bias argues for a deeper sense of responsibility; Ms. Nordell describes prejudice as a kind of theft, which robs individuals and undermines entire societies. She also compares human encounters with the environmental concept of a border, the place where two ecosystems meet. It can be a busy space, full of perils; but it can also be a place of astonishing fertility and biodiversity. “In the ferment of this edge,” she writes, “something new can develop.”

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