Use Other People’s Biases Against You to Your Advantage
How to help others see you the way you want to be seen
Not too long ago, I was setting up slides in my classroom to teach a new MBA course when a student mistook me for the IT support specialist who was ostensibly setting up for the professor. Classic stereotyping: Asian woman equals tech support, not professor.
I’ll always need to acknowledge that there are stereotypes that I face as an Asian woman. And in fact, we are all susceptible to stereotypes and judgment, no matter who we are. Even as we strive for more equitable systems and a more inclusive culture, we bump up against the psychological shortcoming of personal biases — our own, and those of others.
What if, rather than expecting others to rely on stereotypes to size us up, we helped them see what we want them to see? Rather than beating our heads against the wall about other people’s judgments, we can empower ourselves to do something about it.
We can use the biases that others have against us in our favor.
A few years ago, the venture capitalist Paul Graham generated major backlash for saying that a “really bad indication” of a startup’s viability “is a CEO with a strong foreign accent.” He went on to elaborate his view that an accent might hinder an executive’s communication.
Soon after, I learned that, in the United States, people with foreign accents were much less likely to be promoted to middle- and upper-management positions. The most common hypothesis for this phenomenon appeared to align with Graham’s assumption: A belief that people with nonstandard accents were not able to communicate as well as native speakers.
I decided to test this stereotype. In a research experiment, I had people randomly assigned to listen to a message delivered by either someone with a foreign accent or someone with a standard American accent. I found that there was no difference in what they understood, nor in what information they gathered.
The same random study participants were then told to pretend they were in a position to offer workplace promotions to some of the various speakers. They knew that they could not (openly) discriminate based on things like gender, race…