Cognitive bias, gender and leadership: The Necessity of Managing Our Brains

“It’s a mistake to assume that gender bias is only or mainly about misogynists,” said Susan Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton University and the editor of the hurricane study. “Much gender bias is more automatic, ambiguous and ambivalent than people typically assume.”

This op-ed in the NYT is,  I believe, a good example of a cognitive bias at work.  We certainly learn sexism in our cultures.  But women have been subjugated in societies since we started walking upright.  To paraphrase W.B. Yeats, so long a sacrifice makes a stone of the brain; our tendency to perceive women as less competent appears to have become automatic, apparently for most women as well as men.  This presents special challenges for leaders and followers.

Current research suggests that humans tend to follow leaders who are approachable and competent.  This is a theme we have developed over many posts in this blog, including June 11, May 4, March 17, 2014 and June 3, 2012.  If our brains have become hard-wired to view women as less competent than men, we need to work on managing this bias to eliminate its influence on our conscious judgments.  If we cannot control our first thought, we CAN control our second thought and our first action.

I would suggest that command schools for law enforcement and criminal justice address this bias head-on.  Such clear talk might make people uncomfortable at first.  But the discomfort will the very bias at work!  We need to help leaders and followers to understand how this cognitive bias works and how to manage it.  We need to learn better how to manage our brains.  Too much is at stake to do otherwise.  This learning should not be limited to women in command, though some focused work with such women is in order.  Everyone has to learn together.  We should consult with the leading researchers in this field, people like Amy Cuddy at the Harvard Business School, and develop curriculum that helps women commanders to create strategies for achieving approachability and competence in their practices as leaders.

Cuddy has done ground-breaking meta studies and found that the human brain fits leaders into one of four quadrants on a matrix.

Upper Right: Approachable and Competent

Lower Right: Cold and Competent

Upper Left: Approachable and Incompetent

Lower Left: Cold and Incompetent

Cuddy concludes that the ideal place for a leader to put herself is in the Approachable and Competent quadrant.  For fans of Jim Collins, this upper right quadrant is where the “humble but driven” leader lives.  This conclusion is underscored by the work of two of her colleagues at HBS.

 “Research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman drives this point home: In a study of 51,836 leaders, only 27 of them were rated in the bottom quartile in terms of likability and in the top quartile in terms of overall leadership effectiveness—in other words, the chances that a manager who is strongly disliked will be considered a good leader are only about one in 2,000.”
– Amy J.C. Cuddy and others from the Harvard Business Review, July-August, 2013

In the piece, below, the  psychologist and professor Susan Fiske says, “‘Gender bias is not mostly about ‘I hate them, I hate them,’ ” she added. “A lot of it is about ‘I cherish them because they are nice, even if incompetent and needing protection.’”  Thus, our primitive cognitive bias pushes us to perceive women wrongly.

We can only liberate everyone from this debilitating situation by liberating women from the prison of perceived incompetence at the level of cognitive bias.  We can all think of cases in which we see a woman “acting like a man.”  She may default to “toughness” to achieve  respect but she only succeeds in moving perceptions to the lower left quadrant: Cold and Incompetent, the worst place for a leader to find herself.

We have a lot at stake here. Let’s start thinking and learning together.

She Gets No Respect, Sexism Persists, Even Among the Enlightened                                  JUNE 11, 2014, NY Times

Nicholas Kristof

Here’s a riddle: Why would a Hurricane Alexandra be deadlier than an identical Hurricane Alexander?

Because females don’t get respect. Not even 100 mile-per-hour typhoons, if they’re dubbed with female names.

Researchers find that female-named hurricanes kill about twice as many people as similar male-named hurricanes because some people underestimate them. Americans expect male hurricanes to be violent and deadly, but they mistake female hurricanes as dainty or wimpish and don’t take adequate precautions.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, underscored how unconscious biases shape our behavior — even when we’re unaware of them.

Researchers examined the most damaging hurricanes between 1950 and 2012, excluding a couple of outliers like Katrina in 2005. They found that female-named storms killed an average of 45 people, while similar hurricanes with male names killed about half as many.

The authors of the study, Kiju Jung and others at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University, also conducted experiments asking people to predict the intensity and riskiness of a hurricane. When asked about a male hurricane, like Alexander, people predicted a more violent storm than when asked about a female hurricane, like Alexandra.

Likewise, research subjects were more willing to evacuate to avoid Hurricane Victor than when it was Hurricane Victoria. The more masculine the name, the more respect the hurricane drew. The researchers estimated that changing the name of a hurricane from Charley to Eloise could nearly triple the death toll.

Women were as likely as men to disrespect female hurricanes.

We often assume that racism or sexism is primarily about in-your-face bigots or misogynists, but research in the last couple of decades — capped by this hurricane study — shows that the larger problem is unconscious bias even among well-meaning, enlightened people who embrace principles of equality.

This affects the candidates we vote for, the employees we hire, the people we do business with. I suspect unconscious bias has been far more of a factor for President Obama than overt racism and will also be a challenge for Hillary Rodham Clinton if she runs for president again.

“It’s a mistake to assume that gender bias is only or mainly about misogynists,” said Susan Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton University and the editor of the hurricane study. “Much gender bias is more automatic, ambiguous and ambivalent than people typically assume.

“Gender bias is not mostly about ‘I hate them, I hate them,’ ” she added. “A lot of it is about ‘I cherish them because they are nice, even if incompetent and needing protection.’”

Yale researchers contacted science professors at major research universities and asked them to evaluate an application from a (mythical) recent graduate for a laboratory position. The professors received a one-page summary of the candidate, who in some versions was John and in others Jennifer.

On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 the highest, the professors rated John an average of 4, and Jennifer a 3.3. On average, the professors suggested a salary for Jennifer of $26,508, and $30,328 for John. Professors were more willing to mentor John than Jennifer.

The professors’ assessments were unrelated to their own age or gender.

Other studies have reached similar conclusions, often by sending out identical résumés for job applicants — some with a female name and some with a male name. The male versions do better.

For example, evaluators assess the C.V. of “Brian Miller” as stronger than that of an identical “Karen Miller.” Stanford Business School students who read about “Heidi” rate her more power-hungry and self-promoting than those who read about an otherwise identical “Howard.”

While virtually all voters say today that they would vote for a qualified woman for president (only 30 percent said so in 1930), experiments by Cecilia Hyunjong Mo of Vanderbilt University suggest that in practice people favor male candidates because they associate men with leadership.

Professor Mo found that people, when asked to make pairs of images, have no trouble doing so with male names and words like “president” or “governor.” But some struggle to do so quickly with female names, and those people are more likely to vote for male candidates.

“There appears to be a gulf between our conscious ideals of equality and our unconscious tendency to discriminate at the ballot box,” Mo writes.

I suspect that unconscious biases shape everything from salary discrimination to the lackadaisical way many universities handle rape cases. They also help explain why only 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s and 18.5 percent of members of Congress are women.

This deep bias is as elusive as it is pernicious, but a start is to confront and discuss it. Perhaps hurricanes, by catching us out, can help us face our own chauvinism.




About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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