The biggest need of any individual is to feel belonged. The necessity to ‘fit in’ comes out of this belongingness game that we continuously play. We keep going in and out of our ‘comfort zone’ to be in balance and in sync with others. Young kids start picking up similar habits to be on the same page with friends that they like very early on. We as adults, pick up mannerisms and language, and work hard to lose one’s identity in various situations, in order to be accepted by the majority. The pressure to be one like the others is high and usually ignored. We conform where necessary and are compliant when required.
Assimilating ourselves to others needs or ‘Assimilation Bias’ is the need to camouflage oneself so that we no longer are distinct. It plays out in our life long before we even realise that we are playing it out. I have often come across introverted individuals trying to push the mould by working on their presence by showcasing extroverted energy and mannerisms. Often, the change has helped them get the next role but most of the time it has stretched them to be what they aren’t. Recently I met a senior women leader in a sales organization and she confessed that she doesn’t hire women in her team, even though she wants to, because she is fearful that she will be branded as pro-woman and not serious with her team. We tend to put everyone on the same plane and demand similar results, forgetting that each one of us is unique.
But we all still want to Assimilate. Why?
To fulfil a larger need often not mentioned openly, but culturally weaved in our life. Instinct tells us how to behave and ‘fit in’ based on some subtle messages and cues in order to be successful. We may debate as to what’s wrong in fitting with the dominant culture? But isn’t that the dichotomy of diversity and inclusion. We hire for difference but manage for similarities. Batch after batch people are bought in, and very nicely given ‘culture fit’ trainings to make everyone similar. Unfortunately missing the larger picture, losing our creativity, space for innovative thoughts, products and practices.
Assimilating ourselves is also a huge drain on our energies. We end up being what we are not, and that can be hugely tiring. We don’t get our best selves to work and get disengaged at the workplace. Ironically members of the dominant culture most of the time are ‘blind’ and do not realise when others are adjusting for them. They are only likely to notice when someone else doesn’t conform to their norm, or they find themselves in the minority.
In my experience in delivering more than hundreds of ‘Unconscious Bias’ facilitated conversations, it’s almost everywhere that the participants have very hesitatingly admitted to the fact of ‘fitting in’ as a way to be successful in their roles and environment.
But if we as individuals start:
- Appreciating others for what they are
- Being more patient in understanding other’s perspectives and thoughts
- To pause before jumping into stereotypical conclusions
Then we will be able to move our mental models about groups and individuals, that we might have assimilated as part of our upbringing. We will then be able to stretch the larger organizational box to get everyone to ‘fit in’.
– It’s not your fault that you have bias.
– It’s not your fault that our culture acclimates us to preferences in one direction over other
– It’s not your fault that everything that we read, everything that we see, media consumption is not in our control and not necessarily correct
– It’s not your fault that influences from family, friends, institutions, are biased by nature as people get information from them with a premise that it’s for our good.
– But, it can be your fault if having a preference may stop you from exploring equally great possibilities, and even people, that you aren’t even aware about.
All the above preferences, influences, information gets stored in our brains since childhood. Over time they start making mental shortcuts based on person and situation that we call ‘Unconscious Bias’. Now bias itself is just the preference of one thing over another and is just a function of the human condition. If we were not able to make those shortcuts, we wouldn’t quickly make decisions and consequently wouldn’t navigate life easily. E.g we will not put her hand over a flame cause we know we will get burnt, we will necessarily duck our head if we see a flying object coming towards. Bias is an essential survival mechanism.
Most bias is harmless, if it’s for a particular colour, food, place or car. But it can become tricky if we have bias about people. Our brains don’t break the habit of categorizing people and things using mental shortcuts. Some of this information leads to stereotypes which if left unchecked, can cause us to inadvertently push people away.
Positive bias can be just as harmful as a negative bias. It pushes us towards one thing/people and away from the other. That can lead people feeling included or excluded depending on which side of the bias one falls on – eg. more focus on gender programs alienates the men in the organization.
So how can we confront our own biases and allow our self the freedom to encounter new experiences?
The process of overcoming bias starts with ‘Us’. This can be honed with self-awareness, attention and effort. We need to start noticing our own bias by
- Paying attention on how we treat people
- Asking questions to our self if we ‘feel’ included or excluded
- Observing what triggers an emotion in us
We need to start creating authentic relationships which have a certain humility that starts with ‘I want to look at this in a new light’. It requires a willingness to suspend current beliefs and learnings. It also stems from an appreciation of our own incapacity to understand all things that we think we know.
If we can achieve the above then we can truly say we lead an unbiased life .
Privilege as a word is most used and quoted everywhere but very few really understand the weight of the same. Privilege is earned, unearned, inherited, blessed, or otherwise. It is an advantage available to one person or group, that isn’t available to the other person or groups.
Privilege is relative and anyone can have it, and most often everyone has some of it. Fighting for an Independent India our freedom fighters fought for the privilege of freedom. People living in cities have the privilege of modern amenities. People in rural India have the the privilege of fresh air and greenery. In the recent Mumbai rains the privilege of Mumbai came out strongly in terms of attention that it garnered for one day of rain, as opposed to Assam where rains have been playing havoc for a fortnight with hundreds of villages underwater, and people without basic sustenance. It is this privilege which subtly tells you that you are less worthy than others, but unfortunately can be felt only by the underprivileged. Unfortunately, our societies have established systems that recognize some human beings as more valuable than others.
Now being privileged doesn’t make you a bad person, but it makes it harder for you to understand the daily complexities and challenges of navigating life with less privilege. For eg. If you have constantly been mistreated by the police because you belong to a religious group (identity based privilege), it can be challenging to understand the constant fear that each of them go through when they see the police.
Privilege does not make any one better than anyone else. But if we intentionally set aside some of our privilege, it can yield a wealth of unexpected insights. To understand the same at a practical level, we need to take our self out of the comfort zone and the associated privilege. For e.g. we all take being literate, having reasonably normal health and access to clean drinking water as a hygiene factor. By putting ourselves in the shoes of a person who can’t read, person who is suffering from chronic illness and a woman who has to walk 12 kms to get drinking water can make us understand education, health and water in different perspectives.
When we take privilege for granted we create a dominant group identity, which often is the source of hidden privilege. However, that privilege may not occur as hurtful behaviour, it may simply occur as a presumption of normalcy. It can be invisible and when we experience its benefits, we often believe we have earned them. We can easily believe that anybody can have access to the same privileges if ‘they work hard and are smart enough,’ or employ some similar mental algorithm. That lack of awareness can easily blind us from seeing the presence of power and privilege, even when it so obvious to others around us.
I often have men complaining to me in my ‘bias sessions’ that there is too much focus on gender diversity. There is often a smirk in the audience of predominantly men who can-not understand the reason for the extra attention. Flip this question to the women and they will have a different perspective to share only experienced by them and not necessarily in the knowledge of men. E.g. the freedom to move around alone as a woman in the night, the unconscious stereotyping that they come across due to maternity, travel and flexi timings is the privilege that they don’t get being a woman.
Collectively we can move the needle if we temporarily leave aside your own interpretations in order to understand other interpretations. Identify our own privilege and use it for good wherever we see bias. Also, expand our empathy and understanding of people, whose lives are different from our own.
The furore caused by Tannishtha Chaterjee who walked out of the sets of a popular TV Roast Show recently got me thinking. Now ‘Roast’ is not ‘Chicken Roast’ that we are talking here but, a program where celebrities willingly come to the show to get their legs pulled -literally…. no I mean it ! The entire premise is based on satire – the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people, particularly in the context of their work. So what happens if during the course of using humour we just make fun of a well established prejudice ~ Skin Tone or colour being the major ruse out here.
For starters mainstreaming a particular prejudice is not Humour but downright sign of disrespect. Unfortunately the creators of the TV show and the people who enjoy similar humour are unconsciously blind. “Cross my heart; we never intended that”. Well sure, the issue here is not about the intent but the bias which is prevalent and which everyone needs to own up to. The ‘dark skin- toned’ bias is a quality which is shared by an estimated 80% of the people in country. So satiring it is not humour but, plain bullying.
I am sure there are enough red flags which would have come up by now, saying if we are making fun of a physical attribute where the person herself is ok then it should be okay ! A case in point ~ Comedian Bharti Singh who is physically on the heavier side, and makes fun of herself on national television about her weight. Bharti has a choice to be on the heavier side and she is happy being there, but what about millions of people who do not have that choice ?
Being born with a particular skin tone is not choice but pure buy cheap doxycycline 100mg genetics. Imagine the plight of an infant once he/she opens up her eyes demanding a fair world of opportunities. But is left to fight continuously home and outside, cause the entire world is obsessed in making you fairer …somehow. There is this full machinery involved from ‘ubtans’ to fairness creams makers who are making a killing in their efforts to making one fairer. Every newspaper has large matrimonial ads shrieking out – ‘Wanted ‘Fair’ bride(or groom’).
Even our folklores sing “Radha tu kyon gori aur main kyon kala”. Prejudices leads to stereotypes and stereotypes lead to Labels. Once something gets labelled to a particular category, it does not amount to choice.
This is reflective of the society that we live in. Satire in its essence is ridiculing and making fun of power. Unfortunately that’s the opposite which seems to be happening here. It is easy to attack a newbie lower down in the power ladder to influence and make fun. But it will be ‘harakari’ to get a dark skin toned established actress or even any of the Khans invited to be roasted on the same shows. It’s plain power dynamics and associated shenanigans.
We live in an equal society where everyone is entitled to his or her view. I thank Tannishtha for the maturity in taking a stand not because she didn’t want to be roasted or she did not have the right attitude for it. It’s because she understands the fine line between humour and reality. We need a mindset change that is free of inequality with a fresh layer of thinking. In this context, roasting is a counter to a toasting, so highlighting a relevant toast in the form of humour will be a welcome change.
Till then I await the real roasting to happen on Indian television.
It’s been exactly two years since I have been living a dual life. Well I have moved to Dhaka with my banker husband on a tenured assignment after more than a decade of work in Mumbai. This move happened just when I had taken the plunge into the entrepreneurial world with all the passion, energy and ambition. Interestingly, I have been managing my home and my work between both the countries pretty seamlessly.
A client of mine was visiting Dhaka on work recently and she reached out to me to take her around for shopping and sightseeing. She genuinely seem amazed that I knew all the correct places to shop and have been managing a decent home in a foreign country while having a successful venture in India. The classic way unconscious bias plays out in my professional circle is “Can you have a career being based out of a foreign country ?”Not to mention the stereotypes that emerges when I talk about the place that I very happily call home. I still have well-meaning relatives enquiring when we are headed back to India from the very presumably tough posting. Dhaka seems to invite innocuous but puzzling images in their mind.
In my social circle the label that emerges on my frequent travels on work is of being a very ambitious women. Yes I am passionate about the work that I do and believe in, and I don’t find anything wrong in in having courage of conviction in the work that I do. But ironically the label of an ambitious mother automatically gets related to the associated stereotype of a not so committed mother. Coincidentally, I happen to be missing important school events due to my work assignments and projects. It’s quite interesting to note that that my male friends who travel quite a bit are attributed to having a successful career and are also empathised on not being able to spend time with their kids and family.
Over the recent years I have been noticing images, stereotypes and labels that people have on places, names and even on vegetables & fruits. My nanny who has moved with me from Mumbai still has a special view on Indian onions and tomatoes, than which she cooks and eats here. I can swear that they are perfectly fine, similar and maybe even better than what we get back home. My 9 year old son has a very positive image of Malaysia as compared to Cambodia even though he has never been to either of those places.
So why do we end up having a view or an image of people, propecia things and places that we have never encountered with. We can have endless debates about our perfectly formed views without really thinking from where they have taken roots from. So are we biased ? Well most of us will say a resounding NO.
I know no one in this world gets up everyday morning and say ’ I will be biased today’. But it still ends up playing out in so many different and uncertain ways that one doesn’t realise, possibly not aware of and most of the times totally blind about.
So why does this happen ?
Research says that we make patterns in our brains every second of our being and patterns get stores inside it. The process starts building from the time we start interacting as infants and goes on till the time we die. The structure which consequently is formed in turn helps us in making snap judgements. It comes unconsciously to us and is an integral part of our everyday life. We know we need to step aside if we see a vehicle coming towards us on the road, we know we need to stop when a traffic signal shows red and we will never knowingly put our hand inside fire as we know it will burn us. So we utilise our inherent bias’s to make decisions for us. Unconscious Bias are formed basis our upbringing, culture, social webs and the values that we are exposed.
Inclusion is the area of work that I work in and believe in. Over the course of my work and research I came across the Cognizant tool developed by Dr Helen Turnbull who has dedicated her entire life in understanding unconscious bias. This leading edge assessment is completed online, and is designed to provide people with in-depth insight into their own hierarchy of unconscious bias. It’s been a privilege for me and my colleague Sarika to have been certified in this tool and is available in India only via our organization.
The tool has personally helped me work on my personal biases. I have finally been able to understand my perceptions on the Brits as ‘being too stiff’ built over my decade long banking work experience. It has also helped me to pause and reflect on my reactions to colleagues from other cultures.
It’s still a long journey for me, but getting to know my bias has helped me unpack some of my judgements and also helped me put things in perspective. I now await to hear the reactions from my readers on this article while we alI get back to living with biases.