One of my passions since high school has been science fiction. (Of course, back then science fiction was predicting such things as the discovery of fire, the invention of the wheel, and the domestication of animals. But I digress.) I've been revisiting that past by reading some "Year's Best Science Fiction" short story collections from the late 50s and early 60s. (No, those weren't my high school days. Let's just move on.) It is nice to see that, even after 60 years, these stories hold up quite nicely. And, not surprisingly, the stories reveal that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In Judith Merril's 4th Annual Volume of the Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy published in 1959, she ended with some science fact pieces. One titled "Man in Space" was a discussion of how well man would survive once in outer space. (Remember, in 1959 no human had made the trip, so there was still a lot of conjecture about what would actually happen.) The article got a lot of things right, and there were a lot of things it missed. (Isn't hindsight wonderful?) But the thing that really caught my attention was a discussion about how humans might handle the solitude of space.
In particular, the following:
"Women have notoriously strong ties to reality, and for this reason, among others, some experts are convinced that they would fare better than men on a pioneering journey through space in cramped quarters. Another reason is that women live longer than men, and some of the envisioned journeys would take an extended period of time; still another is that women could probably weather long periods of loneliness better, because they are more content to while away the hours dwelling on trivia."
Ouch. That one started out kind of okay, but quickly went off the rails. Unfortunately, I'm not done quoting.
"The cards, though, seem to be stacked against any woman's blasting off ahead of a man. One important officer, Lieutenant Colonel George R. Steinkamp, of the Space Medicine Division at the Air Force School of Aviation Medicine, in San Antonio, Texas, said recently, 'It's just plain not American. We put women on a pedestal, and they belong there.' The pedestal apparently should be anchored firmly to the ground."
Okay, I'll give you a second to recover from that one.
Now, having recovered, let me ask a serious question. Do people still think that way? Do you still think that way? Okay, maybe not in those specific, antiquated concepts. But what preconceived notions, what prejudices, what biases go through your mind when you are interviewing a potential employee who is a female, a young person, an older person, a minority, anyone who is different, or even anyone who is the same as you. And do you even know you are experiencing those biases?
Everyone has blind spots — those areas where preferences, prejudices, tendencies, preconceptions, and biases impact our decision making without us realizing they have, indeed, impacted us. I think internal auditors do a better job than most at recognizing and overcoming those blind spots. After all, one of the major tenets of our profession is objectivity. And the proper application of objectivity requires identifying and eliminating (as best as possible) the blind spots that might impact our ability to provide accurate evaluation and appraisal of the areas we review.
However, just like everyone else, our biggest blind spot is the one affectionately known as the "bias blind spot" — the cognitive bias of recognizing the impact of biases on the judgment of others, while failing to see the impact of biases on one's own judgment. And I think that, while we do an excellent job of watching out for and correcting bias blind spots in our audit work, we do not do as well when it comes to the world of human resources. Specifically, we still do not do a good job of getting past our biases when it comes to identifying, hiring, and developing individuals within the department.
For some reason, the story that sprang to mind as I read the rather interesting discussion about man (yes, definitely "man") in space was about the promotion of a young woman in an audit department. (This was a number of years ago, and the names have been obliterated to protect just about everyone. Somehow, that seemed like a good idea.)
When discussions were held about promoting the young woman, the feedback from the powers that be was that she was too young and too inexperienced. Mind you, she was approximately the same age, as well as having the same experience, as the individuals who felt she was too young and too inexperienced.
In this instance, I don't think it was because she was a woman. I sincerely believe that the people involved forgot just how young they were when they started getting promotions. But I also wonder if, in their minds, being a woman made her just a little younger.
I only heard the story second hand, so I can provide no other evidence one way or another. All I can say is that I trust the individual who told me this story. That is, I trust that it was true, and I trust that the woman at the center of this story had the qualifications, in fact was probably most qualified, for the position.
When you are hiring/developing/promoting, what bias blind spots are in play? When you are working with others, what bias blind spots do you have because you think they are a little young or a little old or somehow just don't fit your preconceived notions of what you expect someone in that position to be? Even when you are doing something as simple as assigning audit work, what bias blind spots are impacting the selections of the leads and of the teams?
Note that these biases can be displayed in any number of ways. I knew a female manager who would never hire other women. She claimed that none of them had the skill set. But, as you talked to her, you realized that she never felt any other female could be as good as her. And I knew another female supervisor who was finally questioned by Human Resources because every one of her employees was female. Mind you, those stories are fewer and farther between. But they happen, too
But the point is that we all suffer from those bias blind spots. As I've already noted, internal auditors do a good job of identifying those blind spots and getting them under control when in the midst of internal audit work. But, just how good are we at recognizing the blind spots we have about people?
It all starts by taking a step back and asking yourself, "What are my reactions and why am I reacting that way?" And then it requires recognizing those biases, acknowledging them, and moving past them.
Take that step back, and who knows who you might promote the next time you dismiss someone as too [insert your recently recognized bias here].