Stereotypes, biases, snap judgements. It doesn’t matter what they’re called, we’re faced with them every day. It’s often said that we make up our mind about someone within seconds of meeting them, so first impressions are certainly important. A lot of these unspoken assumptions are based simply on how we look and present ourselves, quite possibly resulting in misconceptions about who we are, whether we’re trustworthy, what we’re capable of and even whether we’re leadership material.
Without getting into the science too much, there are a lot of things going on in our subconscious when we meet people for the first time. We look at factors like race, age, gender, and even their name. We make judgements based on whether the person has tattoos and what kind of clothes they are wearing. We can make assumptions based on an accent or a physical attribute. Ultimately, we may use all these ‘indicators’ to very quickly determine a person’s social status and whether they will or will not fit into our group.
Stereotypes in the workplace
But in a work environment, where so many other factors like culture, attitude, education and skillset are even more important, this kind of instant typecasting can result in a lack of diversity. Unless we can overcome stereotypes and inaccurate prejudices, it is far too easy to gravitate to people who look like us, sound like us, or have the same background as us.
A recent study found that even among Fortune 500 companies, people with “distinctively Black names were about 10% less likely to get a call back than comparable applications with distinctively white names.” This shouldn’t be happening.
With this as a backdrop, for our Voices post this month we spoke with some NetMotion employees about their personal experiences facing stereotypes and talked with them about what we can do to recognize and minimize their impact.
First, let’s take a step back, outside the office environment. As we go about our daily lives, we all make assumptions about the people we meet. Most of the time those interactions are positive, but preconceived ideas can quickly influence our perception. Even family and friends play an over-sized role in molding the way we view ourselves and others.
“A lot of the Asians in my social circle have internalized their stereotypes,” said Eddy Kuo, part of the sales team in Australia. “They often end up putting great pressure on themselves to be good at something expected of them, like maths or science, when really their talents could lie elsewhere. Stereotypes like these about Asians are everywhere. They might sound positive on the surface, but they’re really not.”
“For me, the stereotype of being called a millennial is super frustrating,” said Brittani Skurok, human resources coordinator. “Millennials are often portrayed as being lazy, or people ‘joke’ that millennials need a trophy for everything they do, like a pat on the back. If I’m late meeting someone it’s for a reason, not because I’m a millennial. Stereotyping a whole generation in that way is a bit much.”
“I feel the same way about the whole ‘okay, boomer’ mentality,” added Joe Anderson, program manager. “It’s been genuinely shocking. I know personally that I’m a privileged white male, so it’s definitely interesting to think that I could face stereotyping, too.”
In many cases, stereotypes are the result of preconceived ideas and prejudices. They often come from society in general, but they can also come from friends or family members whose intentions may be good. And then there are times when stereotypes have led to discrimination. Regardless of the situation, most of us can probably relate to the feeling of being undervalued or misunderstood.
“I learned a long time ago that when I walked into a meeting, I first need to take off the ‘woman’ hat and the ‘black’ hat, because if you’re locked into predetermined ideas, you will get nothing done,” said Mirriam Williams, NetMotion’s senior security compliance specialist. “As a black woman I feel constant pressure to prove my skills and fight for a seat at the table. I’m usually the only black person in the environment. I feel like I have to impress this one person in the room, who already doubts my intelligence, even subconsciously.”
“Moving to Seattle from Wyoming, people would ask things like ‘did you have electricity, did you live in a shack?’ I even had a male teacher tell me that I would be better off staying at home, barefoot and pregnant. That made me work hard, and I eventually graduated high school near the top of my class and got a full ride scholarship to Washington State University (WSU). I was really proud of myself, but looking back at that whole episode I’m also angry that someone could feel entitled enough to say things like that to anyone.”Brittani Skurok, Human Resources Coordinator, NetMotion
“I felt pressure from my parents, too,” added Eddy. “They really wanted me to have a career at a big bank, or become a lawyer or a doctor. The stereotype exists because there is pressure within some Asian families. That made me lean towards going to one of the large accounting firms early on, which I didn’t find interesting. I had to do some self-actualization before I could scrape away the stereotypes and preconceptions that I had of myself.”
Can we ever realistically do away with stereotypes? Probably not. But, we can do more to recognize how they may be clouding our judgement and be more vocal if we see them elsewhere within the organization.
“It’s never easy to confront people, but if we notice someone falling back on stereotypes and not seeing the big picture, we shouldn’t be afraid to say something. If we hear an untrue or stereotypical comment, we can remind that person that their assumptions aren’t true, or aren’t contributing to the discussion. In fact, you’re likely to find that there are more people feeling the same way you do, but they haven’t had the courage to voice it.”Mirriam Williams, Senior Security Compliance Specialist, NetMotion
“I see an opportunity for our internal teams, be they engineering or sales, to put more effort into appreciating the challenges that other teams face,” added Joe. “We need to have more empathy for the very different roles that we have without getting stuck in a silo mentality.”
At the end of the day, this empathy for others is key. Seeing each person as an individual, and having the ability to put ourselves in their shoes goes a long way to humanizing and valuing them for their own unique merits. It may not be possible to completely avoid making decisions based on stereotypes in everything that we do, but at least trying to identify stereotypical thinking – and keeping it in check – is something that we can and should all strive for.
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