We all make assumptions about other people – especially if a person comes from a minority group or a group that we don’t belong to. This often involves subconsciously singling out a person and monitoring them more closely than others. But such a bias can be damaging in practise and should be controlled, says Snéha Khilay.
Stereotyping or making inappropriate assumptions is likely to occur when an individual has a ‘solo’ or ‘near solo’ status, that is when they are the only visible minority person (whether it be skin colour, age, gender or disability) amongst an otherwise majority group – for instance being an only woman among male colleagues. Specifically, within a work context, stereotyping is more likely when a member of a minority group assumes a role considered to be non-traditional – male nurses, female board members and so on.
Belinda, a 30 year old African woman working as an experienced sales representative consistently received positive appraisal and development feedback. Her line manager retired and she transferred to the supervision of Peter, the Sales Director – a white man in his early sixties. Over time, Belinda found herself subject to increased scrutiny and was singled out by being required to complete detailed time sheets, with her mileage and any expenses questioned critically. The relationship between Belinda and Peter subsequently deteriorated to the extent that Belinda refused to discuss her role with Peter. A formal meeting was arranged, with Belinda requesting that her union representative accompany her; Peter refused this request. As a result, Belinda declined further one-to-one meetings with Peter. Subsequently Peter started formal disciplinary proceedings.
With recent changes in legislation, in particular the Race Relations Amendment Act (2000) and the Equality Act 2010, equality practitioners (and advocates) are now challenging more subtle discrimination. There is evidence that subtle discrimination arises when an individual takes cognitive short cuts as a way of processing, assimilating and recalling information – in essence one individual applying a stereotype to another. In parallel, our thought processes predispose us to be subconsciously biased in favour of our own group – those most ‘like us’.
To describe this solo stereotyping, I have coined the phrase ‘neon arrow’ as it flashes symbolically at an individual’s solo status. On a recent visit, I asked to see John, only to be told that there were three Johns working on the team – which one did I want? When I specified which John I wanted to see, I was told – in jest – that John must have had a stressful morning as he’d already drunk three cups of coffee. I asked if the other Johns had done the same and was told not – only this John. I realised that John’s solo status as the only staff member in a wheel chair which made him visibly different had resulted in his colleagues monitoring him subconsciously.
At a recent performance, there were six girls and one boy dancing on stage. I found myself subconsciously following the boy’s dance movements, and can recall what colour t-shirt he was wearing whereas I couldn’t say what colour the girls’ t-shirts were. Equally, I noted the errors in the boy’s dance routine, as I had followed his dance movements more closely because he was different from the rest of the group. In essence, the boy had a ‘solo’ status.
It is generally recognised that individuals identify and categorise a person’s status in terms of ‘different’ within a second or two, thereby triggering the stereotype associated with that person’s group. As indicated in the story about Belinda this split-second categorisation can manifest itself in treating such individuals differently, thus translating these stereotypes into a distorted reality. Belinda could legitimately claim discrimination, arguing that she was treated less favourably on the grounds of race. Although she performed her job well, as evidenced by appraisals, by being singled out for increased scrutiny and being subjected to excessive questioning about her expenses, in effect she was being harassed by her manager. Her employing organisation would need to explain and justify why other, similarly situated, white colleagues were not treated the same way.
Research suggests that individuals are able to control their subconscious focus on colleagues who are different. By being aware of their focus, an individual can eliminate the (negative) effects of making stereotypes and treat their colleagues with respect. Further, people should be encouraged to form accurate impressions based on an individual, their behaviour and their language patterns as opposed to focusing only on the associated group stereotype. With the changes in legislation, many employers and organisations consider the business case for moving away from stereotypes and are becoming more aware of the need to avoid the effects of making assumptions. Organisations are placing emphasis on efficiently dealing with language, behaviour and attitude that has the potential to cause damage to an organisation’s hard won reputation.
Many films now feature more complete, developed characters of diverse ethnic backgrounds. The wider concern is to be able to explore the stereotypes tastefully, moving past stereotypes to see the core of people. – Forest Whitaker
When asked whether it bothered her to be described as a Black, woman writer, Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison, replied:
I’m already discredited, I’m already politicised… I can accept the labels because being a Black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it.
Snéha Khilay is a diversity and leadership consultant/trainer. She specialises in supporting organisations in meeting their statutory Equality and Diversity requirements. Snéha carries out consultancy and training on Diversity and Inclusion, Managing Diversity and the Law, Cultural Competency, Dignity at Work and Conflict Resolution. She conducts independent investigations and mediation for organisations into allegations of bullying and harassment. Snéha has published articles on diversity and leadership in Management Today, Start Your Business, Simply Business, Professional Manager, Change Board, People and People Management. Visit Snéha’s website at www.bluetuliptraining.co.uk