LCP LCP LCP
Skip to content

A riddle, presented to Archie Bunker in the television show All in the Family, left me befuddled as a child in the 1970s. What’s your answer?

A man and his son are in a serious car accident in which the father dies and the son is severely injured. As the boy awaits surgery in the operating room, the surgeon enters and immediately says, “I can’t operate. This is my son.” Who is the surgeon?

Are you perplexed? Is it completely obvious to you? For many people today, the answer is obvious and immediate: The surgeon is the boy’s mother.

Neither Archie Bunker nor my 10-year-old self could conjure that answer. Instead, we pursued convoluted paths, never questioning our unconscious assumption that the surgeon was a man (and we didn’t even consider the possibility that the surgeon could be the boy’s second father in a family parented by two gay men).

We have come a long way. Yet there is more progress to be made, as we learned in an unintended social experiment we conducted in a recent leadership program.

gender-sign

For more than a decade, Insight Experience has been supporting a large Silicon Valley company in preparing their emerging leaders for expanded leadership roles in one of our Executing Strategy programs. Hundreds of leaders have experienced this program, and alumni of the program nominate their promising staff to participate.

An essential element of this program is a series of role plays in which the coaches and facilitators play multiple roles in the simulated company. While recently refining the program, we decided to create each character without identifying their gender. This allows any faculty member to step into the role of any character without distractions caused by gender mismatches between the characters and the role-players.

We chose to use the gender-neutral names "Chris" and "PK" for two General Managers; "Amanpreet" and "Alex" for two senior leaders; and "Pat" for a Director role. I wrote the biographical sketches and scenarios without ever using a personal pronoun. (I consider this one of my minor superpowers.)

Having launched our new and improved program, featuring our gender-neutral profiles, we have noticed that leaders tend to assume that these fictional leaders are men, even when interacting with a woman playing the role. As I debrief a role play, team members refer to my character using the pronoun "he." This continues even after I clarify the gender-neutral names and note that, because I am a woman and I am playing Chris, the character Chris is a woman.

The power of social conditioning is relentless. Messages about gender dig in early and stubbornly persevere, creating the infrastructure of our unconscious bias. These biases show up unbidden, such as when I am surprised that New Orleans Mayor Cantrell is a Black woman; startled when I’m connected to the nurse’s station and hear a masculine voice; and confused when the pronoun she comes after the word filmmaker. I don’t realize I have an expectation until that expectation is not met.

male-nurse

Due to years of society’s meticulous training, one for which I never registered, I cannot control which unconscious thoughts spring forth. However, I can choose what to with the thoughts when they enter my consciousness and make themselves visible.

I want to treat these discoveries with curiosity and care rather than condemnation and censure. This is challenging, because the cultural tendency toward right/wrong binaries invites me to label these biased thoughts as “bad” and “wrong.” (It’s difficult to see the many layers of unconscious biases that exist, and this is all the more reason to be kind to ourselves.) It’s one thing to think, “Wow, look at my assumption. That doesn’t line up with my values or my reality.” It’s another thing to think, “Wow, what is wrong with me? That’s not how I’m supposed to think.” The first thought opens me up, and the latter one shuts me down.

As leaders, we are called to notice bias in our teams and organizations as well as inside ourselves. We need to balance a candid identification of biases that we notice with careful attention to everyone’s needs, most importantly the person harmed or excluded — but also the person surprised by their unconscious biases.

At Insight Experience, we seek to learn through reflection and refinement, and examining our biases is a vital part of that. I am now an avid collector of female-oriented gender-neutral names, such as "LaShawn," "Whitney," and "Jaya." In another recent enhancement of the program, we named a new character "Robin" to spark images of women leaders, while leaving room for a male role-player to justifiably appear. I am curious to see which assumptions will accompany these names.

We design our leadership programs to support a learning culture. In simulated organizations where participants work in teams, individuals have the opportunity to face challenges and discover outcomes based on decisions. They get to catch themselves being themselves, so to speak, in the team dynamic. They then have the chance to reflect, all with support from their teams and our faculty. How might you cultivate a similar learning culture with your teams?

Gender biases-leadership development

Want to learn more about how this Insight Experience Executing Strategy program has been successfully delivered in person and virtually? Head to the Executing Strategy page of our site

 

Subscribe to Our Blog

Let's Talk

We'd love to hear about your leadership development goals.

Leave Comment

Recent Posts

Why Developing Business Acumen in Frontline and Young Leaders Is Crucial for Success-featured-image
Why Developing Business Acumen in Frontline and Young Leaders Is Crucial for Success
Click to view Why Developing Business Acumen in Frontline and Young Leaders Is Crucial for Success

In an increasingly competitive business landscape, the ability to make high-quality decisions at speed is...

Category:-  Featured , Business Acumen

Learn More Click to view blog post
What Does It Take to Be a General Manager?-featured-image
What Does It Take to Be a General Manager?
Click to view What Does It Take to Be a General Manager?

The role of General Manager (GM) is a demanding leadership position. It requires adopting new perspectives on...

Category:-  Featured , Leadership

Learn More Click to view blog post
Game Plan: What Board Games Teach Us About Business Strategy-featured-image
Game Plan: What Board Games Teach Us About Business Strategy
Click to view Game Plan: What Board Games Teach Us About Business Strategy

Remember when board games were all about racing to a finish line (like Trouble) or sabotaging your opponent...

Category:-  Featured , Executing Strategy

Learn More Click to view blog post
What Is a Leadership Simulation?-featured-image
What Is a Leadership Simulation?
Click to view What Is a Leadership Simulation?

In today’s interconnected global economy, leadership is a key differentiator. Leaders are expected to...

Category:-  Featured , Business Simulation , Leadership

Learn More Click to view blog post
4 Ways to Extend Your Leadership Training Into Daily Work-featured-image
4 Ways to Extend Your Leadership Training Into Daily Work
Click to view 4 Ways to Extend Your Leadership Training Into Daily Work

After completing a leadership simulation, you might find yourself asking: What comes next? The transition...

Category:-  Featured , Business Simulation , Leadership

Learn More Click to view blog post
Leading With Care: 7 Mental Health Strategies for Leaders-featured-image
Leading With Care: 7 Mental Health Strategies for Leaders
Click to view Leading With Care: 7 Mental Health Strategies for Leaders

I was once in a meeting where one of my colleagues started crying. It was nothing dramatic. In fact, most...

Category:-  Featured , Leadership

Learn More Click to view blog post
Who Are You? Unlocking Self-Aware Leadership-featured-image
Who Are You? Unlocking Self-Aware Leadership
Click to view Who Are You? Unlocking Self-Aware Leadership

Tune in to any leadership book, podcast, or workshop, and chances are it’s about doing leadership: how to...

Category:-  Featured , Leadership

Learn More Click to view blog post
Spring Is in the Air: Lighten Up Your Leadership Journey-featured-image
Spring Is in the Air: Lighten Up Your Leadership Journey
Click to view Spring Is in the Air: Lighten Up Your Leadership Journey

Note: This is one blog post in our Season of Leadership series. Read about winter and summer, and keep an eye...

Category:-  Featured , Leadership

Learn More Click to view blog post
Leveraging Decision Data for Organizational Excellence-featured-image
Leveraging Decision Data for Organizational Excellence
Click to view Leveraging Decision Data for Organizational Excellence

How does your organization quantify leadership effectiveness beyond subjective self-assessment reports and...

Category:-  Featured , Business Simulation , Leadership

Learn More Click to view blog post
Leadership Illuminated: A Q&A With Women Shaping the Future-featured-image
Leadership Illuminated: A Q&A With Women Shaping the Future
Click to view Leadership Illuminated: A Q&A With Women Shaping the Future

Four years ago, just before heading back to work after the birth of my second child, I spoke to my close...

Category:-  Featured , Leadership

Learn More Click to view blog post