Confirmation Bias, Stereotypes, And Your Leadership Brand

Barbara Harris and Jack Lemon in the movie, The War Between Men And Women.

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (…) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.”

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620

In other words: we all have beliefs that are deeply ingrained in our brain. Changing them would provoke too much ruckus, so we strive to keep things as they are in our thinking system. To do so, for our beliefs to be safe in our minds, we see the evidence that supports them and ignore the one that debunks them.

This human behavior–that apparently no one can escape–is known as confirmation bias. What we experience confirms what we already knew–except we are ignoring the parts of the experience that don’t support the belief.

Think about the following stereotypes. Women care about people, men care about things. Women strive to maintain relationships, men strive to acquire status and power. Women are sexy–objects of desire–, men are driven by sex–agents of desire. Women are emotional, men are cold. Women are helpers, men are leaders.

When someone who believes it is true that women are emotional witnesses a woman crying in the office, he or she won’t think, “She’s having a difficult time.”

Instead, the sight of this particular woman crying today will make him or her confirm the thought, “women are emotional.” The witness will overlook other instances when the woman who happens to be crying now was objective, dispassionate and able to keep her cool under fire. Seeing her crying now will make the witness think something as, “I knew it! Women are emotional; she is a woman, ergo… she is emotional.” 

And emotional people are, of course, incapable of leadership because leadership requires a cool head, objectivity, and emotional discipline. Good leaders don’t allow their mood to drive their decisions.

Crying in the office has been addressed many times in the realm of career advice for women.

But other traits that you may be disregarding may be sending signals that others will use to confirm their biases against women as leaders.

Consider this stereotype: women are sexy–objects of desire–, men are driven by sex–agents of desire. If this were true, women would try to have men do what they themselves can’t–since men are agents and thus do, whereas women are objects and thus endure.

In order to achieve their goals, women would manipulate men into doing what they–women–want. And because men are driven by sex, one effective way of manipulating men would be appealing to their sexual desire.

Now, ask yourself: Do you dress sexy in the office? Do you reveal too much with your clothes? Do you exaggerate your femininity with your body language, voice and posture? Do you resort to flirting with male clients because that makes it easier for you to establish working relationships? Do you play the “girl” card when an assignment overwhelms you and you need help?

Observe what you’re doing. Keep in mind that confirmation bias is lurking in almost every mind, ready to jump on and catch even the faintest sign of a stereotype that you may be displaying.

And when it does, the mind where it hides will say, “I knew it! Women are objects of sex. She is a woman, ergo… she can’t be a leader.”

So, the next time you think of wearing that to the office, think again.


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