Recognizing Bias — by Dionne Poulton

Recently in the news, a woman was out to lunch and overheard a group of male IBM business executives speaking publicly (well actually privately, but in a public place) about not wanting to hire young women who are in their childbearing years because they get pregnant again and again.

This incident highlights two important matters that affect the workplace: 1) The notion of “public” versus “private” conversations when you are an employee of a company, and 2) The importance of addressing the personal biases of employees and understanding the extent to which these biases affect their decision-making and behavior.

Public Versus Private

The notion of public versus private conversations was heavily debated during the Donald Sterling scandal and I contend that when you are a public figure, you must always, in the back of your mind, believe that your words and actions could be made public. Therefore, you must always be careful about what you say and do, and to whom you say and do because you never know who’s watching or listening.

The recent firestorm involving NFL player Ray Rice who was caught on tape dragging his wife out of an elevator is a lesson for all of us. Is an argument and “fight” with your spouse not a private matter? Rice’s conflict did not take place at his workplace – on the football field, so then why should his “private” conduct affect his job? Put simply, it is because his actions did not only tarnish his personal brand, but they also tarnished the NFL brand by extension.

Gone are the days when people punched a clock and left their jobs behind at the end of the workday. Because of increased technology and our unyielding “gotcha” culture, we must always consider ourselves as employees, regardless of the time of day or where we are. And even if we don’t work for someone else, we must always keep in mind the importance of preserving our personal brands, which are our reputations. When I was growing up, my parents always said, “be careful what you do and what you say, even when you think no one is watching.” The IBM executives, Donald Sterling and Ray Rice could all benefit from this advice.

Gender Bias

The IBM executives spoke explicitly about their unwillingness to hire younger women; so in this case, gender bias and also discrimination are not in question. However, bias is not always this obvious and overt so determining its presence and influence in any situation is not usually this easy. Luckily, the Ray Rice incident is a perfect example of how gender and also racial bias can permeate into public discourse and influence the court of public opinion – with or without public awareness.

Is it okay that Ray Rice hit his wife after she allegedly hit him? If you juxtapose the words of Whoopi Goldberg on The View to those of Stephen A. Smith on ESPN, you will realize that there is virtually no difference between what Goldberg said and what Smith said. However, the type of public response and level of reprimand each one received was drastically different. Stephen A. Smith was suspended for a week, while Whoopi Goldberg went unscathed. Why the difference in “punishment”? Because Smith is a man and Goldberg is a woman.

Ultimately, because of gender bias, we have learned from this incident that a man should never hit a woman (even if he is allegedly provoked), and that unless you are a woman, you should never suggest that a woman can “provoke” a man into hitting her. I agree. Generally, it seems that only the “victims” of particular hardships can comment on their own plight. Another example is the use of the n-word. I have publicly stated in the past that no one should use the n-word. However, I have also said that the n-word should be especially off limits to white people because they created the word to hurt black people. It is an implicit double standard, much like the double standard that decided the very different consequences for two television hosts who in essence, shared the same opinion.

Racial Bias

I would be remiss if I did not address another societal double standard that emerged from the Ray Rice incident. If you would recall, the week before Ray Rice hit his wife, country singer Tim McGraw slapped a woman squarely in her face during a concert because the woman grabbed his leg and was supposedly, going to rip his jeans. I ask rhetorically, how is what Tim McGraw did any different than what Ray Rice did? They are equally wrong for their horrendous conduct against women but where is the outrage against McGraw?

Where are the calls to boycott his music or calls to the Country Music Association to sanction him for his actions? If we juxtapose the actions of Rice to those of McGraw, they virtually did the same thing – they both physically abused a woman. However, why the big discrepancy between how Rice is viewed versus McGraw? Rice could not buy his way out of the news cycle while McGraw’s actions were “explained away” because I guess a woman grabbing a man’s leg at a concert is more than enough provocation to warrant a slap in her face.

In our society’s court of opinion and public outcry, the Rice incident virtually eclipsed the McGraw incident when in fact, both incidents should have been met with the same outrage. McGraw and Rice are both men, they are both superstars in their respective professions, and they both hit a woman. However, Ray Rice was suspended for two games for his actions, while Tim McGraw continues to enjoy his fame as though nothing has happened. The only obvious difference between the two is race. The public came down much harder on Ray Rice who is a black man, versus Tim McGraw who is white, when in essence they both committed the same offense. This example of discrepancies in punishment for similar offenses is a kin to the disparate treatment that Stephen A. Smith and Whoopi Goldberg received even though they said the same thing.

It is a very good thing that our society is willing to publicly address bad behavior when we see it. However, we also need to think critically about how we look at situations and learn to be more cognizant of the lenses we are looking through. In other words, we need to explore and acknowledge how our biases impact our perceptions and judgments, and we need to look for contradictions and double standards. Moreover, we have to also understand that the world is now our workplace.

The line between public and private is forever blurred so what we do at home does affect who we are at work; and what we do in public can affect our employment status. Ultimately, as jurors in the court of public opinion, we must recognize that at any given time our words and actions could land us as plaintiffs in that very court.

Dionne Wright Poulton, Ph.D.
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