In 2003, a journalist named Katherine Rosman was at a party where she felt awkward and out of place. So she struck up a conversation with someone else who seemed to feel out of place. He was one of the few African-Americans there, and turned out to be a state senator. Later that evening, Rosman learned that one of the other guests had assumed that the senator was a waiter, and had asked him to get a drink from the bar.
This anecdote, which might not seem especially newsworthy, was reported in the Wall Street Journal in November 2008, because that state senator had become president-elect of the United States.
Barack Obama had been on the receiving end of what I call an "unconscious demotion," the unthinking habit of assuming that somebody holds a position lower in status or expertise than they actually do. In my research on language and bias, I’ve found that it's usually women and people of color who are most often on the receiving end of these incidents while meeting new people.
This is far from a new phenomenon, and it's usually written about as way of illustrating how unconscious bias works. But it's worth thinking seriously about as a specific behavior—one that threatens to quietly chip away at organizations' best efforts at improving diversity and inclusion.
Female doctors are frequently mistaken for nurses or medical students. Female lawyers are assumed to be paralegals or secretaries or court reporters. Female systems administrators are mistaken for personal assistants when their desks are near their boss’s. Queen Latifah’s manager accompanies her to a meeting and is assumed to be an assistant or bodyguard. A sociologist isn’t perceived to be a professor by a textbook rep waiting at her door. When she live-tweets this unconscious demotion, one follower translates the rep’s apology of "I, uh, didn’t recognize you" as "code" for "I was not expecting you to be black."
And here we have the key to unconscious demotions: not being recognized.
The human brain is incredibly good at pattern recognition. From our very first months of life, our brains are working to sort out patterns that let us create meaning from the world around us. By the time we’re 12 months old, for instance, we’ve learned to pay attention to the sounds that are meaningful in our language(s) and to ignore the sounds that aren't. And our surroundings get sorted into categories that give some things more importance than others.
Think about what comes to mind when you read the words "bird," "furniture," and "doctor." For most of us, a robin is a more prototypical bird than a penguin, a sofa is more prototypical furniture than a bookshelf, and a man is a more prototypical doctor than a woman.
That last prototype is what fuels this old riddle:
A man and his son are in a car crash. When the son is brought to the operating room, the surgeon says, "I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son." How is this possible?
In a recent study on bias at Boston University that included this very riddle, just 14% of college students guessed that the surgeon was the boy’s mother.
Our categories for professions and jobs come from years of sorting data from the world around us. They're based on what we see on TV and in movies, what we read in the paper and online, and what we encounter in person in our everyday lives. In other words, our categories are the result of our formidable pattern-recognition skills, not a willful, deep-seated animus.
But these categories, and the judgments we make based on them, can be wrong when they don’t take into account the real diversity among the people we interact with—particularly in professional settings.
While mistaking a doctor for a nurse or a sysadmin for a personal assistant might feel like just a small mistake, the negative effects on the person being unconsciously demoted can be real and long lasting.
An anonymous game developer recently posted about her experiences at industry events. Just minutes after arriving, she is regularly asked if she's there because she's someone’s girlfriend or an artist. After explaining that she’s a game developer, she usually faces a credential check and is forced to "regurgitate" her resume.
Each time, she says, her experience is ruined. The unconscious demotion, and the fact that she has to prove her value again and again while male game developers are "considered to be valid just by showing up" eats away at her.
And that has material costs for her work. She writes, "I am less likely to attend industry events because of the psychological toll that springs from the constant invalidation of my abilities as a game developer." Her absence will both lessen the visibility of female game developers and potentially hold back her career.
Psychologists researching why women are still underrepresented in some fields suggest that one issue may be "occupational disidentification." Women working in professions where prototypes are mainly male often feel like they don’t really belong. For example, a study of female surgeons showed that discomfort with the role's typical masculinity made them more likely to leave the field. Something similar likely factors into why there have been no net gains in STEM-workforce diversity since 2001.
Rebecca Rogers Ackermann, a biological anthropologist, recently wrote about her experiences as a female scientist and how frequently her colleagues comment about her appearance, which she finds "exhausting." She writes, "‘Yes, I have a PhD.’ ‘Yes, I am a scientist.’ ‘Yes, I know I don’t look like a scientist.’"
More than just being frustrating, though, Ackermann says that this feeds into an impostor syndrome that leads her to think, "Maybe they are right, if just a little bit." It isn't just our own self-doubts that can cause us to feel like frauds at our jobs. Unconscious demotions play an added role by confirming that anxiety: See? Other people don't believe in my accomplishments either.
So what can be done, especially if unconscious demotions—like the unconscious bias they exemplify—are, well, unconscious? Once you're aware that this habit exists, it should actually be pretty easy to fend against it:
- Be mindful. Are you assuming something—good, bad, or indifferent—about the professional position of the person you’ve just started talking to?
- Instead of asking a question like, "Oh, are you a nurse/legal secretary/personal assistant?" ask something open-ended like, "So what do you do?" Even if you’ve made an assumption in your head, you haven’t let the other person know.
- Avoid expressions of surprise, and especially avoid the credential check. Don’t grill someone who doesn’t fit your expectations about their background, experience, mastery of coding languages, etc. This suggests disbelief that they're competent enough to hold their current position.
As time goes on, our categories will change to better reflect the world around us. In the meantime, we can pay closer attention to our language and professional behavior—and make everyone feel as qualified as they are, and as included as they should be.
Dr. Suzanne Wertheim is a linguistic anthropologist and Founder/CEO of Worthwhile Research and Consulting. She writes and teaches about language, bias, and diversity