Inclusive Leadership – A Story about bias

Here’s a story that you have probably heard before:

A father and his son are in a car accident. The father is killed and the son is seriously injured. The son is taken to the hospital where the surgeon says, “I cannot operate, because this boy is my son.”

This popular brain teaser dates back many years, but it remains relevant today; 40 to 75 percent of people still can’t figure it out. Those who do solve it usually take a few minutes to guess that the boy’s mother is the surgeon. Even with the best of intentions, when we hear “surgeon” or “boss,” the image that pops into our minds is usually a male.

The assumption is that when people realise that biases are widespread, they will be more likely to overcome them. However, new research suggests that if we’re not careful, making people aware of bias can backfire, leading them to discriminate more rather than less.

In several experiments, Professor Michelle Duguid of Washington University in St. Louis and Professor Melissa Thomas-Hunt of the University of Virginia studied whether making people aware of bias would lessen it. They informed some participants that stereotypes were rare and told others that stereotypes were common, then asked for their perceptions of women. Those who read that stereotypes were common rated women as significantly less career-oriented and more family-oriented. Even when instructed to “try to avoid thinking about others in such a manner,” participants still viewed women more traditionally after reading that a vast majority of people held stereotypes.

Professors Duguid and Thomas-Hunt conducted a similar study and told managers that stereotypes were either common or rare. Then, asked managers to read a transcript from a job interview of a candidate described as either female or male. At the end of the interview, the candidate asked for higher compensation and a nonstandard bonus. When the managers read that many people held stereotypes, they were 28%less interested in hiring the female candidate. They also judged her as 27% less likable. The same information did not alter their judgments of male candidates.

Based on these findings, Professors Duguid and Thomas-Hunt used a new approach to prevent bias awareness from backfiring.

Rather than merely informing managers that stereotypes persisted, they added that a vast majority of people try to overcome their stereotypic preconceptions. With this adjustment, discrimination nearly vanished in their studies. After reading this message, managers were 28% more interested in working with the female candidate who negotiated assertively and judged her as 25% more likable.

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

To break down the barriers that hold women back, it’s not enough to spread awareness. If we don’t reinforce that people need — and want — to overcome their biases, we end up silently condoning the status quo.

Enberin has conducted numerous experiments on challenging leaders to action to counteract bias by practicing new behaviours. We have found that setting leaders up to be accountable to each other on progress around these experiments – starts a positive wave of ‘peer group pressure’ – which creates the reinforcement of INCLUSIVE LEADERSHIP behaviours. This approach is working!


Blog Author: Maureen Frank at Emberin
Maureen Frank is the Chief Disruption Officer at Emberin which is an organization that challenges leaders and organizations to get real about inclusion and diversity. Emberin is a global leading organization in diversity and inclusion training, working with over 250 of the largest organizations in the world. Maureen comes to the world of inclusion and diversity from a strong commercial background with a focus on ROI and results. Over the last 12 years, she is proud to have mentored over 32,000 participants from all over the world through the award-winning program at Emberin. To find out more about Maureen and Emberin, visit: