Gender Diversity & The Unconscious Bias Trap

We have written briefly on the topic of Unconscious Bias before and we were taken with a posting by David M Mayer on July 26th in Harvard Business review entitled: “How Not To Advocate For A Woman At Work”, which gives an insightful perspective on how an unconscious bias can colour and damage the effectiveness of the message being communicated.

Mayer picks up on a conversation between CNN’s Jake Tapper and Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director “who described Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the new White House press secretary, in favourable terms, using words like “authentic” and “phenomenal”.”  However, as Mayer says “in just 60 seconds of a 26-minute interview, Scaramucci did Sanders, women in general, and men who care about gender equality a disservice.” Scaramucci used phrases like “I want to make her better”,  he emphasised her warmth rather than her competence; he gave public advice on her personal appearance: “Sarah, if you’re watching, I loved the hair and makeup person we had on Friday. So I would like to continue to use the hair and makeup person.”  Mayer notes “it is reasonable to assume Scaramucci had good intentions, his comments provide an example of how a well-meaning man can unintentionally undermine a female colleague with comments that miss the mark”.   Would Scaramucci have given the same messages and used the same descriptors about a male colleague?

So how did this man, who was clearly supportive of his female colleague, manage to undermine her without intention?  Mayer points us toward the research of Susan Fiske, Princeton University & Peter Glick, Lawrence University on “Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complimentary Justifications for Gender Inequality”.  Scaramucci displayed the characteristics of Benevolent Sexism (presumably an unconscious bias) which simply means he has a paternalistic perspective of women, i.e. women should be protected, supported, and nurtured.  Unfortunately an implication of this can be the belief that women are incapable of making it to the top of their careers without the protection and guidance of a male mentor.  Because the intention is positive many women are disarmed and embrace this support as cherishing rather than restricting and disempowering, and never fully realise their own potential because of the reliance on a male sponsor and the perceived criticality of same.  Thus a well meaning intention to support women can actually have the opposite effect.

In the HBR article Mayer is quick to point out that this is not about bashing men, it is simply about understanding that biases exist, are triggered at great speed and frequently escape our conscious monitoring.  He suggests trying this as a mantra when advocating for women:

·     “I will focus on competence, not warmth.

·     I will describe her as self-reliant, not needing my protection.

·     I will focus on her brain, not on her physical appearance.

·     I will enhance her status with titles, not use informal language that diminishes her standing.”


American Psychology 2001: “Hostile and Benevolent Sexism As Complimentary Justifications for Gender Inequality”.  Susan Fiske & Peter Glick