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Will stereotyping the taboo eliminate unconscious bias?


Let’s talk about Self-stereotyping


Stereotypes are bad.


It is taboo to say otherwise. This is the message drilled into us from all directions by the media and wider society. How dare we place people into cold, hard boxes and slap a label on top?


In fact, stereotypes are in and of themselves, taboo.


Yes, I just labelled the label.


Here’s why they shouldn’t be.


If we take a step back, it is clear that stereotyping, at the core, is not necessarily bad. Our habit of stereotyping has been engineered by this fancy thing called ‘evolution’ to help us make sense of the mind-bogglingly complex world around us.



A stereotype is nothing more than an expectation: the gradual, deep process of learning through experience - whether it’s direct or through the experiences of others.



It is the experience that certain things are the way they are, and then, expecting things to stay the way they are.


The danger is when we can’t look past the stereotype. Our stereotype-sculpted expectations can be dangerously blinding.


In fact, stereotypes are cunning little devils: they have the power to permeate our sub-conscience so that we, ourselves, have no autonomy over whether or not we ourselves are culprits. That’s where stereotyping gives birth to unconscious bias.


The real plot twist is that the person stereotyping you the most is probably YOU.


We just don’t talk about it.


Don’t believe me? Let me take you on a short trip to the green lawns of Cambridge, Massachusetts.


An experiment at MIT involved two groups of randomly-assigned female Asian-American college students attempting a mathematics test¹. Before the test, all women were given a set of questions: one group was asked about their Asian ethnicity and heritage while the other was asked about their identity as a woman. The psychological term for this is priming.


Both groups were then given the same math test. The expectation was that both groups perform similarly, due to the random assignment, but of course, this didn’t happen.


Those college students that had been reminded of their Asian-American identity just minutes before the test significantly outperformed the other group: those who had been reminded of their female identities¹.


This can be attributed to the imperceptible self-stereotyping going on behind the scenes, also known as stereotype threat.


Two stereotypes were at play here: Asians are smart and girls are bad at math. The women who were reminded of their socially conditioned and gender-related mathematical inferiority, showed, on average, a quiet knock to their confidence. Some ghostly morsel of self-doubt stayed with them while they made their calculations and handicapped them.


The findings of this experiment do not stand alone. Similar patterns have been unearthed again and again in a wide range of studies and demonstrate how common it is to inadvertently fall victim to stereotype threat ², in our everyday lives.


We are threatened by societal stereotypes because we are complicit.

The limitations we unwittingly place on ourselves are just as dangerous as the biased judgment of others – if not more.


Of course, this self-handicapping is only a product of a broader society strewn with stereotypes that lay like landmines of unconscious bias: unseen, silent, and dangerous.


A society where only 2.7% of venture capital dollars trickle into women-owned businesses, where less than 5% of US venture capital firms have a woman on their executive team³.


But also a society where businesses founded by women ultimately deliver higher revenue - more than twice as much per dollar invested than those founded by men.


Change starts with accepting the unconscious gender bias that we all have.


Inherently, when we are triggered and react to stereotypes it is the reflection of our own insecurities. A mirror.


And, a conversation about self-stereotyping will demonstrate that, paradoxically, because we are all guilty, there is no crime. So, let’s talk about it.


Because, when something is taboo, shit never gets done.



The Global Collective is the ecosystem for change. It provides a space for female entrepreneurs to be heard by male investors and male-led investment firms, for alliances to be forged and for gender-based stereotypes to be left in the past.



References


¹Pittinsky, T., Shih, M., Ambady, N. (2002) Identity Adaptiveness: Affect Across Multiple Identities. Journal of Social Issues. 55:3, 503-518.

²Spencer, S., Steele, C., Quinn, D. (1999) Stereotype Threat, and Women's Math Performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 35:1, 4-28. ISSN 0022-1031.

³Kersten, A. & Athanasia, G. (2022) Addressing the Gender Imbalance in Venture Capital and Entrepreneurship. Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Zafar, F (2022) Female-led startups massively outperform male-led: VCs need to wake up. Arabian Business.

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