On Bias and How it Affects Onlyness

A father and his son are in a car accident. The father is killed, and the son is seriously injured. The son is taken to the hospital where the surgeon says, ‘I cannot operate, because this boy is my son.’

This was the old fable used by Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg’s in the New York Times on Sunday. I read that riddle while doing a lie-in in Belgium having given the opening keynote at the International Marketing Congress in Belgium, STIMA, the day before. And I had to smile at the use of this story because it always takes a second to remember the answer. It’s not automatic. It’s work.

So if the answers not obvious to you, it’s okay.

Most of grew up with the idea that a Doctor = Man. Or that a Boss = Man. Or that bestselling author = Man. It’s why women’s leadership stories too often show up in the “style” section of the newspaper not the business section. It’s just old patterns continuing, which is what bias is.


So it shouldn’t have surprised me that first question asked after my talk wasn’t about how to create more value in the Social Era, or to dig deeper into the 8 specific examples I gave about social disruptions that will prevent marketing or business from being “the same as it ever was”. No, the 1st question (as well as the 2nd) was about style, not substance. About getting to know me. But not about getting to know my ideas. And the comparison was ever so much more in my face because during the Q&A, Marc Mathieu, SVP of Unilever and I were together. I had given the Opening keynote and he followed me, referenced me and clearly integrated our collective ideas so they became even stronger for the group. But the audience asked him content questions questions, and me style ones.

One of the questions that was asked was how I felt about being only 1 of 2 speakers that were women out of 18 total speakers. The audience cheered loudly when I answered, “being a woman is the least interesting thing about me”. It’s true. The fact that I represent 52% of a population isn’t that big a mark of distinction. And it isn’t for any woman. We just don’t know how to tell you that without sounding “bossy”. The fact that I’ve written two books that have sold well, the fact that I am recognized as the #1 Thinker of the Future, or the fact that ‘I’ve been there and done that’ with over 18 billion shipped.  I dunno, those seem to be more interesting things to discuss.

And this is the cost of bias. When you only see the outsides, like gender, you deny something important. The distinct and inherent things that person is interested in, their passions, their joys, their smarts, their ideas. In other words, when you only see the outside, you deny the onlyness of the person sitting right in front of you. This is what happens we look at “them” through our lens of bias. I managed to fit in line or two about how including more women creates better business outcomes because those that are often unseen are the ones most likely to see new solutions. But despite all that, the damage was already done.

Because, really, I wish Marc got asked that question. We should not point out bias, because that reinforces it, only cements it. Instead, we ought to point to the majority of people who aim to to overcome their stereotypical preconceptions. How are they doing it, and then ask for what works. That’s a question I’d love to have asked of many people. Because as long as we ask women “the style questions”, we miss the opportunity to hear their next big idea that can make money, create better results and perhaps even solve some intractable problem that society is facing right now.



6 Responses:

  1. Wendy Zito. December 8, 2014 at 7:25 am  

    Kind of hard to believe this is still happening ?

    • Nilofer Merchant. December 8, 2014 at 10:33 am  

      i know. right. I got asked by LI to write a piece on 2015 trend and I thought of writing that feminism will make traction but I couldn’t credibly do that idea at this point.

  2. Linda Alepin. December 8, 2014 at 8:31 am  

    Two women out of eighteen? A breakthrough from my day when at 100% clubs the gift was a tie clip! Congrats Nikofer on your only ness — those who “know” you are certain you are unique.

    • Nilofer Merchant. December 8, 2014 at 10:34 am  

      Oh, Linda, let’s hope we’ll see the slope of that change get steeper and soon. But thanks for reminding me that … yes, this is progress.

  3. Narendra Goidani. December 8, 2014 at 9:41 pm  

    What a brilliant statement…“being a woman is the least interesting thing about me”. Moved me!
    Thanks for sharing



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