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How Unconscious Bias Is Affecting Our Ability To Listen

Research shows listeners tend to have a bias against female voices, even when they're saying the same thing as a man.

How Unconscious Bias Is Affecting Our Ability To Listen

[Photo: Jo McRyan/Getty Images]

Sloppy grammar, sounding like you just woke up, ending statements with a slight uptick in pitch, called "uptalk" or "Valley girl speak," have all been proven to undermine a person’s success.

But how does the listener break down information when both a man and a woman are saying the exact same thing? According to research, the voice itself is the source of unconscious bias for the listener, and women are interpreted differently as a result.

"Gendered Listening"

Meghan Sumner, an associate professor of linguistics at Stanford University, stumbled into the unconscious bias realm after years of investigating how listeners extract information from voices, and how the pieces of information are stored in our memory. Study after study, she found that we all listen differently based on where we’re from and our feelings toward different accents. It’s not a conscious choice, but the result of social biases that form unconscious stereotyping which then influences that way we listen.

"It’s not always what someone said, it’s also how they said it," Sumner tells Fast Company. "How we view people socially from their voice, influences how we attend to them, how we listen to them."

For instance, in one experiment, Sumner found that the "average American listener" preferred a "Southern Standard British English" voice rather than one who had a New York City accent, even if both voices are saying the same words. Consequently, the listener will remember more of what the English speaker says and will deem them as smarter. All of this is impacted by the stereotypes that we have of British people and New Yorkers.

Even if you don’t have any association or interactions with a group of people, a listener can still presume they know what those people would say. For example, if you don’t interact with women often, you might still assume you know what women talk about. It doesn’t matter what the woman is actually saying because the listener will always automatically anticipate what she’ll say next, or what she’s trying to say.

Often, this stops us from truly listening to what people say. In another small study, Sumner and her colleague, Ed King, found that if a man says the word "academy," the listener might assume that he’s speaking about a school, but when a woman says "academy," listeners will more likely presume that she’s talking about an award show.

Voices And Context

Contrary to what many may think, unconscious bias is not a bias against one group, according to Sumner, but is the gap created from "the pulling apart of the two categories." She's found that there's not a negative bias against women. It’s just that when women are compared to men, they are downgraded while men are upgraded.

Sumner found that even when a certain female voice is deemed trustworthy, clear, and comprehensible, her voice receives lower ratings when put in context with a man’s voice. Even if a man’s voice is rated as not-so-reliable or intelligent on its own, when he’s compared to a woman’s, he suddenly gets a boost in ratings.

In an interview for Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Sumner says, "It is clear that how we hear a voice can change depending on whether it is alone, or in the context of another voice. Everything is relative."

Beating Back Biases

It’s obvious that unconscious bias impacts all of our choices. But if we can’t help it, what can we do about it?

Most importantly, let's not talk about what women should be doing, says Sumner, but rather, how each and every one of us can change the way we process information.

When you can, she suggests, consider writing everything down and going back to read over your notes to make sure you’re really getting what people are saying. Even then, there’s a good chance you are not actually writing down what they’re saying, warns Sumner, but only what you think they said.

This can be particularly valuable during the hiring process. Sumner points to Iris Bohnet's work on removing societal barriers that could be putting women at a professional disadvantage. In her book What Works: Gender Equality by Design, Bohnet, a behavioral economist at Harvard University, recommends having structured job interviews where the hiring manager thinks about questions that can predict success beforehand, then asks all candidates the same questions, in the same order.

Taking that practice a step further, Sumner's suggestion to record the conversation through note-taking can be particularly valuable. If the interviewer is focused on writing down what the candidate is saying, they are not so focused on the candidate's demeanor or their demographic characteristics.

By assigning each candidate's answers a number instead of their name serves to anonymize the responses somewhat when the notes are reviewed. Another option would be to ask candidates to fill out the performance-based questions in their own writing after having a face-to-face interview for personality and culture fit purposes.

In every instance, ask: "What evidence do I have that I’m basing my decision on?" advises Sumner. She cautions that discriminatory behavior, especially those related to vocal cues are activated "fast and early," meaning the biases that come into play when we process what someone is saying occurs shortly after the initial meeting—much earlier than most of us expect.

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