13 truths that will make you determined to tackle stereotyping
We all use stereotyping to our advantage.
The clothes we wear, the make-up we put on and our posture are powerful indicators that we use to signpost our place in society. We conform to stereotypes to fit in and be accepted, to make a statement about which gangs we belong to, to choose when to stand out and when to be invisible.
Our understanding of other people is based on their age, skin colour, accent and other features. We add to those when we find out the work they do, the family they have and other features of their lives. If we didn’t use this shorthand, we would have to start from zero whenever we met someone new – with no assumptions about who they were available to us unless they specifically told us.
We are all victims of stereotyping.
Stereotyping limits as much as it liberates. By affecting our place in society, stereotyping affects our education, jobs, wealth, friendships, marriage, health – pretty much everything that makes us who we are gets influenced by other people’s assumptions about us.
That place in society that we are careful to illustrate is not without hierarchy or judgement. We look down at those who wear the ‘wrong’ clothes or say the ‘wrong’ thing at the ‘wrong’ time. We don’t accept others as merely ‘different’ but as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than we are.
And if we find ourselves as the one that is characterised as lower in the hierarchy, the limitations can overwhelm the opportunities that stereotyping offers.
Here are some truths about stereotyping:
- We are all biased. Without basing our judgements on pre-conceived ideas, we would be like a newborn baby. It would be like learning what a person was every time you met someone.
- Stereotypes are usually wrong We are more multifaceted, varied and complex than stereotypes suggest. Even if an Asian man is good at maths, he may prefer poetry, rock music or football. But seeing an Asian who is good at maths makes us assume we have met a geek.
- Stereotypes don’t allow us to be different Stereotypes may sometimes have a basis in fact, but stop being helpful when we look at individuals. Statistics show that Asians tend to better at maths at school in the UK and the US than the rest of the population. But any one of them may not be good at maths. All men are not more physically strong than all women. All gay people do not dress well.
- We stereotype ourselves as well as others Remind an Asian woman that she is Asian before a test, and she will do better in that test. Remind her that she is a woman, and she will do worse. Subconsiously, we conform to the stereotypes we have been taught, even if consciously we disagree with them.
- Stereotypes infect children from an early age The ‘doll test’ showed very young children picking between a white doll and a black doll which were identical other than the skin and eye colour, when asked questions like ‘which doll is good’ or ‘which doll is ugly’. They had already learned to choose the white doll as ‘pretty’ and ‘good’ and the black doll as ‘ugly and bad’ even if the child themselves was black.
- Stereotypes affect us in ways we wouldn’t imagine Even our name can influence what we do. Our first name influences what people assume about our background, race and ability. Names may influence what job we have. Igor Judge is the former Lod Chief Justice for England and Wales and the Reverend Michael Vickers is a Church of England vicar. If you are called Baker, Carpenter or Farmer you are also more likely to be one! We are even more likely to get on with people whose name starts with the same letter as ours, and donate to help people affected by tornados or hurricanes that have a name that starts with the same letter as our own.
- Stereotyping limits diversity We like to think recruitment is by merit, but analysis proves otherwise. In Latin America, more women attend college than men, but this is not reflected in employment by Latin American companies. In Europe, 45% of PhDs awarded in 2006 were to women, but they held only 18% of the senior research positions.
- Limited diversity leads to more limited success Diversity is shown to trump ability in group decision making, by broadening the options and the challenges to the otherwise mainstream choices. Small numbers of ‘different’ people in an organisation are more likely to conform, rather than have the power to challenge, cultural norms
- At their worst, stereotypes cause, or feed, conflict In the words of Jo Cox, the MP who was murdered by a far right terrorist, we have #moreincommon, than we have differences. It is no surprise that in war or genocide we emphasise those differences, attempting to de-humanise our opponents.
- Even seemingly harmless bias reduces opportunities for others Giving the child of a wealthy friend the opportunity to have work experience in your company is, of course, a generous act. It does, however, also entrench inequality, as middle-class children are offered the chances that others cannot access.
- Stereotypes cause people to hide their differences to conform 41% of American LGBT workers remain in the closet at work. One estimate suggests that this may reduce their productivity by 10% because of the effort taken to hide who they are.
- We can reduce unconscious bias in recruitment Make decisions based on objective criteria that you establish in advance. Take names and other identifying details off job applications before shortlisting. Actively give chances to people with different viewpoints to your own. Be clear about the real ‘must-haves’ versus those that just entrench sameness within your organisation.
- Find diverse role models Research shows that role models have a huge effect on undermining our stereotypes. If you are black woman who wants to work in engineering, finding another black woman who is already a successful engineer makes you much more likely to succeed. Michelle Obama’s visit to a UK school appears to have caused a significant jump in GCSE results relative to other nearby schools.
Many people transcend stereotypes: think Grayson Perry, Ada Lovelace, Desmond Tutu, Tanni Grey-Thomson, Eddie Izzard, Oprah Winfrey, Albert Einstein, Lady Gaga, Rosa Parks and thousands of others. May they inspire you to transcend yours.