One two-piece suit and three points bias.

Mansi Goel
6 min readNov 8, 2018

I don’t know why I paused on this video in my feed but idle curiosity kept me watching. A previous colleague, now CEO of his own company, offered tips to sales reps on dressing for success. I was taken aback to notice that all the reps fit just one old mold.

Dressed for success!

I had to be mistaken. I paid closer attention. Indeed, the tips really did feature — and therefore seemed addressed to — only white men. I felt a naive incredulity that even now, when combating unconscious bias is a Silicon Valley slogan, this entrepreneur (let’s call him ‘John’) could be so oblivious. I pinged John about it.

I told John his video reinforced unconscious biases. John responded that he hadn’t meant to address only men as sales reps but he only knew about two-piece suits and didn’t feel equipped to address women. He shared a more gender neutral video and assured me, I completely agree that racial and gender inclusivity is a huge a blind spot for businesses. I definitely consider that when hiring. We’re actually over half women at _____ and have really good diversity too. It’s pretty important to me.

I believe him. I’m sure John cares about diversity and hires accordingly. Yet, the video he sent me featured only white faces. He told me, It’s ironic because it was actually 2 women of color on my marketing team that picked all the white men. I did notice that after I saw this though.

So, what stopped the women of color on John’s marketing team from looking beyond white men? I can’t speak for them but I know I’ve often stepped into the dominant worldview to gain acceptance. I didn’t always notice how this diminished my sense of self but I did notice it rewarded my career. The more I could fit in, the more my work could stand out.

Earlier in my career, the woman of color choosing only white men for John’s video could have been me. As I became an executive, the well-intentioned leader approving it might also have been me. How do so many of us committed to diversity still miss the mark so widely?

I invited John to ponder some questions that enliven my work now:

How do you enable people to live their race, gender, etc. at work?

Still dressed for success!

That the marketers choosing only images of white men are women of color is no comfort. Rather, it is more reason to probe how your culture may inhibit the very diversity you’re aiming for. Research shows women benefit when they downplay gender — which is to say, when we assimilate. Do you signal to do this or do you support bringing people’s actual selves alive at work?

I understand why John didn’t feel he could offer dress tips for women. It should have been easy to acknowledge this and ask viewers if they wanted a similar video for women. (Marketing bonus: engagement!) Still, after a historic election in which a white pantsuit was arguably Hillary Clinton’s de facto running mate, it should have been even easier simply to apply John’s tips to women also.

Many leaders expect to combat bias simply through workforce diversity. But it’s critical to integrate an anti-bias approach throughout culture and leadership, in strategy, and across core business practices. Otherwise, a diverse workforce can’t actually employ its diversity to improve business impact. John’s anachronistic marketing collateral is just one example of the result.

How do you prioritize anti-bias and signal others to do the same?

It’s not enough for John’s marketers to live as themselves at work if they must also use their identity to fight bias. This reduces people to just one aspect of themselves, can exacerbate an outsider sense, and further burdens them to tirelessly play some “woman”, “race”, etc. card.

So, if you can’t hire diverse people expecting them to ‘do diversity’, are you in a catch-22? Actually, there is a way out.

You can prioritize stepping outside the dominant lens. Especially if you’re a member of the dominant group, you can claim the limitations of its perspective — loudly and often. You can point out the obvious as an insider and model a norm for others. John could say, “There’s already enough of me in this video, let’s not fill it with more people just like me.”

Doing this matters even more as a leader. Even in times of calm, baboons look to the alpha two to three times per minute. We, too, look to leaders for cues of what’s important and acceptable. If leaders don’t clearly assert their priority for fighting bias, others will struggle to prioritize it. In fact, they may downplay aspects of themselves to get along with the dominant group. They may adopt the same lens and churn out marketing without noticing that they are erasing even themselves in it.

What if you remove the obvious option?

“People ask me sometimes, when — when do you think it will it be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine.” -Ruth Bader Ginsburg

When asked how many women would be enough on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg responded: nine. Her answer delights us for its seeming wrongness. The American imagination strains to seat five women, we’d accept four as equal. But RBG’s point is that nine (white) men were always entrusted with the interests of all Americans, why shouldn’t women be granted the same trust?

RBG upends the obvious so that we can see it more clearly. Our disorientation frees us to find a new anchor. Just what is so outrageous about a women-only court? One way to combat unconscious bias can be to identify its most predominant aspect and swing boldly toward the opposite.

What if John were to ask his marketing team to create collateral without representing any white men at all?

What if everyone in John’s videos were only, say, women of color? Every client, every sales rep, every marketer, every executive. I can’t be sure but I’d guess John may not need help noticing that homogeneity. Maybe he’d ask whether it were aimed at a specific market segment. While images of white businessmen are meant to represent all professionals, those of women of color often stand in only for other women of color. Women are expected — and conditioned — to see ourselves in men, and people of color to see ourselves in white people, but not vice versa.

If it’s so difficult to combat this unconscious bias and to remember images of women and people of color, what if you try excluding all images of white men? Would you be uncomfortable launching the result? Whether or not you do, the exercise itself can illuminate important learning.

This wasn’t my first such exchange with a CEO. I’m sharing this one not only because it illuminates some key principles but also because I could relate both to John’s well-intentioned, but insufficient, leadership and to the women of color’s oversight. We are all in the same struggle against our conditioning.

None of us is alone on this journey. It’s a tough one and we need to cheerlead each other to keep taking the difficult steps.

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