Bias, Bias Everywhere

I love the Olympics. The competition is (mostly) clean; facts determine the outcome; bitter rivals embrace out of deep respect. When the Games started last Friday, I was so happy. And then we started talking about them. Ugh. The media commentary has been a parade of unconscious bias; now I’m feeling cranky.

Here are a couple of primo headlines:

“Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” – Chicago Tribune

“Was Gabby Douglas’s National Anthem Stance a Silent Black Lives Matter Protest?” – Vulture Entertainment News (a division of New York Magazine)

And some charming commentary:

“Baker, a Team USA swimmer, lost the earring Sunday during a preliminary swim. Scuba divers later found it in Olympic Aquatics Stadium pool and gave it back. A video of the dive can be viewed here.  The 19-year-old North Carolina native won silver Monday in the 100-meter backstroke.” – United Press International

“They look like they could be standing in a mall.” (of the competition-crushing US Women’s Gymnastics team)  – NBC News

“And there’s the man responsible.” (of gold medalist and world record swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s husband and coach) – NBC News

And that was just in the first four days.

Unfortunately, these sports writers and commentators are simply airing the biases we all walk around with. Most of us live in cultures that minimize women’s achievements. We downplay and disbelieve their excellence. We obscure women’s merits by fixating on their appearance, fashion choices and roles in the home.

And we pay women less – a lot less. The members of the US Women’s Olympic Soccer Team are each paid $1,350 for every game they win. Their counterparts on the men’s Olympic soccer team receive $9,375 each for a win, $6,250 for a tie, and $5,000 for a loss. Forbes’ columnist Bill Conerly recently wrote an article outlining the economic justification for this compensation scheme. While some of his points may have been valid, his final summation was this:

“Some of the men might not bother to show up for paltry pay, but the women are likely to be less particular—because their regular jobs pay so little.”

Seriously, Bill?

Most of our brains are riddled with prejudicial “mind bugs” (Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Banaji and Greenwald) that drive our thinking without our awareness. Mind bugs are partly an adaptive function of the brain and partly a result of cultural messaging. So I’m not surprised that Olympic commentators have biases. What amazes me is how unaware of them they seem to be. Statements like those above shouldn’t be let out of the house unsupervised, much less televised to the worldwide millions.

To be clear, this isn’t only happening in the media. It’s happening every day in our workplaces, communities, families and in our own heads. And women are most certainly not the only targets of bias. The bottom line is that most of us are good people who are acting on slanted perceptions: partial world views that are invisible to us but harmful and hurtful to others. None of us is immune.

So what’s a well-meaning, “mind bugged” person to do? Here are five simple but demanding ideas:

  1. Own your “stuff.” Claim your place in the human race and acknowledge that biases operate in you. If you want to see what your biases may be, you can take Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test. There are multiple tests, measuring the presence and degree of your biases on dimensions such as race, gender, age, weight and religion.
  2. Be on the lookout for biases in your actions and words. Listen to the language and metaphors you use, because they’ll reveal a lot about your thinking. The more aware of our inherited mind bugs we become, the more we’ll be able to stop them from backseat-driving our words and actions.
  3. Challenge your beliefs and assumptions. “Women aren’t as competitive as men.” “African Americans commit more crimes than whites.” If you find yourself ascribing to generalities like these, do a little research and test your assumptions against objective reality.
  4. Switch it around. That thing you’re about write or say – would you express it that way about a member of another group? If not, check yourself. To quote the “Babe” blog, if you wouldn’t write the headline, “Fiance of former Miss California scoops his 25th Olympic medal,” then don’t write that headline that says, “Cory Cogdale, wife of Bears Lineman, wins bronze.”  If you wouldn’t describe a white person as “articulate” or “uppity,” then don’t describe your African American colleague that way. Call her by her truer names: “compelling” or “principled.”
  5. Raise your speaking standards. The Buddhists have a wonderful concept called “wise speech.” For speech to be “wise,” it must meet three criteria:
    • True. Almost by definition, bias does not reflect a holistic view of reality. So facts are the great mindbug antidote. Whoever you’re judging isn’t as bad as you’re making out to be. Whoever you’re praising probably isn’t as awesome, either.
    • Useful or necessary. If we think something disparaging about someone, we can ask ourselves whether saying it adds any real value to ourselves or others.
    • Kind. Oral sniper fire can be so satisfying in the moment. But is it really what you want? If you invest the energy to enact the principle of ‘wise speech,’ you’ll be a more effective and sensitive communicator. And the world will be a quieter place, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

What about you?

  1. What are the mind bugs that your culture and upbringing have embedded in you?
  2. What or who do those mind bugs prevent you from seeing fairly or objectively?
  3. How do you monitor your own biases? How do you get feedback?
  4. What are three steps you could take to reduce or better manage your blindspots?


5 replies
  1. Reggie Marra
    Reggie Marra says:

    Thanks, as always, for this, Leslie. As much as I love the Olympics (and sports in general), when I watch nowadays I usually keep the sound low or off, and I don’t read much of the reporting. My attention has been, in a similar vein, on the political scene where both print and broadcast media say things about female candidates, and not just the presidential candidate, that they do not say — ever — about men. And it’s common on both sides of the political aisle. We have a lot of work to do. Thank you for holding our collective eyes, ears and feet to the bias fire.

  2. Patti Brown
    Patti Brown says:

    I, too, have been incredibly frustrated with biases in the news about the Olympics. And politics. And the workplace. And home.


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