See if you can spot the bias in the following scenarios:
1. A female finance executive is told by a male peer in a meeting that her presentation is too detailed and a complete “waste of time.” Another male colleague rushes to her defense, explaining that there is nothing wrong with the presentation and she was just trying to be helpful.
2. A male manufacturing executive of color writes a stern memo to the all-white senior leadership team, including the CEO, challenging their complacency in addressing existential competitive threats by digital natives outside of their industry. His memo is ignored. Instead, he is told he has trouble dealing with ambiguity.
3. A female engineer presents to her male boss and colleagues a thorough network analysis that points out numerous risks and failure modes. Her presentation is politely received and generates little commentary. When a male colleague presents a less well-considered analysis of the same network, she critiques its many gaps. The boss tells her she is too critical and need to receive coaching on giving proper feedback.
All involved in these scenarios — the defender; the senior leaders; the engineering boss — believe they are acting benevolently. Each would say they meant well and had the individual’s best interest at heart. Certainly, defending a colleague, using a competency as a way to give feedback, and developing the skills of a direct report are ostensibly helpful acts.
Fish Never See Their Own Water
But what these actors likely could not see is the implicit bias embedded in their actions. They might not see it because they are making use of norms inherent in their culture. This, in part, is what blinds us to systemic bias: in appropriating accepted cultural tropes, we miss the fact that these tropes are structured by systemic biases to begin with. We hardly ever “see” our own culture because it functions as water to fish: the fish never see the water they swim in. They just make use of it as an essential everyday resource. That is how culture works.
The cognitive science of culture that has emerged over the last few decades helps explain this phenomenon. By understanding it just a bit, we can begin untangling why systemic bias is so pervasive and historically tenacious, and how we might begin to address it in more impactful ways within the workplace and society.
The Cognitive Science of Culture — In Brief
What we know from cognitive science is that culture is a reference system — a kind of shared mental operating system for making sense and successfully operating in the world. As a function of human evolution and survival, reference systems emerge from how our brains experience being in the physical and social world, and by what we do to master and make meaning in those worlds. These experiences help build mental models — or schemas — that become the framework by which we sort out, make meaning of, and successfully function within new situations. Another way to view these models is as shared dominant logics. In other words, they are preconscious representations that take visible form as assumptions, standards and lived norms for explaining, rationalizing and idealizing.
Logics power practices — formal and informal habits, routines, and processes. Consider the organization whose leaders spend ten hours a week in meetings devoted solely to business unit performance reports. This practice is the expression of a shared logic of risk mitigation (i.e. we need to closely control all risk in the business). Practices sustain culture by shaping the neural architecture of the collective in accordance with the underlying logic structuring the practice.
Reference systems are also made up common behaviors or attitudes that are often expressions of — or compensations for — dominant logics and practices. Which is why trying to change culture by changing attitudes targets symptoms rather than root cause.
Systemic Biases Come from the Reference Systems that Produce Them
Because cultural reference systems come from successful environmental adaptations, they are closely tied to power. The logics at their core exist because of a dominant group (software engineers in a software company, lawyers in a law firm, and so on), or because the collective overcame a difficult existential challenge (technical, business, ecological, etc.) to begin with that allowed it to survive and thrive (think Microsoft with operating systems, Google with search, Southwest with inexpensive airfare, etc.).
This is how cultures form.
Cognitive science shows how the scenarios above are cultural tropes that are themselves reactions to or expressions of underlying dominant logic. So let’s look at those scenarios again.
In the second scenario, the appeal to a standard — dealing with ambiguity — masks the underlying risk avoidance logic in that company’s reference system. Senior leaders appropriated an idealized standard to marginalize and delegitimize someone who questioned their strategy who also doesn’t look like them. They did this by subtlety invoking a double standard in the name of being helpful. If the company were better at dealing with ambiguity, they would be more honest about the risk posed from digital natives — which requires dealing with ambiguity!
The same phenomena can be seen replicated at the societal level, albeit in a more opaque way given the scale and complexity of whole societies. In the first scenario, the dominant logic is that women are weak and need protecting. In the third, the dominant logic is that women are too emotional and strident — and therefore need extra help to ‘learn how to play nice.’ In all cases, the logic of the reference system powers the gendered stereotypes — the extreme or crudest expression of a dominant logic. By preconsciously appropriating the stereotypes, those in power preserve the status quo. After all, that is what cultural reference systems are designed to do — and one reason cultures are so hard to change.
This boiled-down explanation of systemic bias using the cognitive science of culture admittedly leaves a lot out of the picture. But consider these takeaways to further untangle its complexities.
First, it explains why systemic bias is so hard to see and solve: it is rooted in the deep structures of logic that underpin culture. These logics come from what the brain naturally does: extract mental representations of the environment in order to successfully deal with it. Logics like take care of the helpless female; teach the aggressive female how to behave, etc. are obviously very old and rooted in practices appropriated by the dominant group (men) that have pervaded and been reified in societal and economic practices across cultures for millennia. This doesn’t justify the bias, but it does explain its historical perniciousness.
It also shows how bias can manifest as would-be compensations for dominant logics. This is behavior opposite to the logic, or (when the logic is undesirable), an idealized strategy for solving it. For example, dealing with ambiguity justifies delegitimizing the dissenter by invoking desired behavior ostensibly designed to be developmental — an indirect, risk-avoidant way to sideline difference. The same phenomenon can be seen in societal behavior, such as a dominant group invoking guilt and shame to try and minimize their own racism and oppression.
Finally, because logics take shape as practices, the only effective way for organizations or societies to change their cultures are to change their practices. Only by changing a group’s formal and informal habits, routines, and processes can the shared neural logics underwriting culture start to change. This is much easier said than done, but it explains the persistence of systemic bias despite years of well-intended efforts to address it. It explains why change is so hard, and why all the diversity and inclusion programs in the world cannot shift culture. Training raises awareness, sure, which is important. But to sustainably change culture requires altering the very practices that reinforce and sustain the logics powering the systemic culture of bias to begin with.
About The Author:
David G. White Jr, PhD, is a partner and co-founder of Ontos Global, and a cognitive anthropologist focusing on new approaches to organizational culture and change based on the emerging science of the cultural mind. Along with partner and co-founder Lisa J. Koss and their associates around the world, Ontos Global helps organizations manage and sustain transformation, working with companies such as ITT, Fidelity Investments, Pratt & Whitney, and CVS. Prior to Ontos he held positions at Microsoft, Mercer HR Consulting, and Lotus Development (IBM). He’s also a professional jazz guitarist and composer. His new book is Disrupting Corporate Culture: How Cognitive Science Alters Accepted Beliefs About Culture and Culture Change and Its Impact on Leaders and Change Agents (Taylor & Francis, July 2020). Learn more at ontosglobal.com/team/david-white