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How to check your stories for bias

Collection of Barbies working in the sciences

The shopping holidays are coming, so let me regale you with the greatest toy I ever had. And show you a video about a robot. And tell you about a cool scientist. Ok ok ok. And I promise to tell you how to check your stories for bias about your values.

The greatest toy of all time

When I was about six, I saw the most incredible I-have-to-have-this-I-will-do-all-my-chores-without-protest-please-please-please-I-will-die-without-it toy. This treasure was a portable, dual-sided Barbie studio and office. Plastic perfection with a handle. It folded into a hexagon but once unfolded—hold on to your pigtails—one side was her pink studio apartment complete with Murphy bed and sticker bookshelves. The other side was a blue office with a Murphy desk, swivel chair, and a PERSONAL COMPUTER (the word “computer” was written in quotes on the box—that’s how bleeding edge this was). It was the early 80s and my ideal future writ large.

I already had a few Barbies eligible to move in; Crystal Ball Gown Barbie, Peaches and Cream Barbie, Tropical Barbie, and a Rocker Barbie with a white leather snakeskin skirt. I picked one and dressed her up in business lady clothes and she transformed into Self-sufficient Barbie, the most interesting, independent aspiration of all time.

She deftly navigated her mergers and acquisitions meeting by day, hosted the other Barbies for dinner at night (Tab anyone? Yum!), and then crawled into her fold-out bed to plan her packed agenda for the next day. Thousands of employees depended on her so she had to come correct. Ohhhh, she was the real deal. She had a backstory. She had a reputation she cultivated for herself. Ken was peripheral (they knew each other from intramural sports), and was not a romantic interest. The whole construct was the kind of thing a little girl could dream up on her own because the narratives of the world hadn’t minimized it yet.

Bias is bad and boring

Fast forward a few decades and I see the minimizing and diluting of those stories everywhere. As an adult working in the world of persuasion (let’s be honest, that’s how my niche of consulting equips clients), it’s clear Self-sufficient Barbie better be stylish and pretty if we’re going to give her a second look and a first listen.

AI reveals the bias of beauty

AI is here to help uncover how deep it goes. Yes, we’re programming AI to have bias and that’s a problem, but just put a pin in that for a sec and watch this video about the gajillion stories with bias:

The robots tell us we usually describe women in terms of looks (beautiful, sexy, gorgeous) and men in terms of behavior (brave, rational, righteous). This video reminded me of Stieg Larsson’s portraits of women in the Millenium Series (the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books). The women in his books were intricate and exciting. But then Larsson died, and his estranged brother engaged a wildly inferior writer to capitalize on the popular series.

The new author wrote a fourth book that was total crapola. My local librarian dry heaved when I asked her about it. The book was a terrible read. The women went from being multidimensional and multitalented to being one thing—beautiful. Puke. No exaggeration here; the new author used only the adjective “beautiful” for every female character, stripping each one of depth and dimension. Peaches and cream Barbie all over. And that kind of drivel is everywhere…maybe even at your organization.

Are your stories biased or balanced?

The robot says it’s happening a lot so it’s probably happening where you work, too. Then how do you check your stories for bias? Take a beat to look at the types of stories you tell in celebration at work. How do you reward—forgive how reductive this sounds—both masculine and feminine qualities, especially in the unlikely sex? It’s not just gender stuff, either. It’s about race, class, introversion, ethnicity, industry, etc. Do you respect the great listeners as much as the ones who always speak up? Are you promoting the reflective, patient people as much as the decisive, quick ones? What’s the difference between bold and angry in your camp? It’s hard to be self-aware enough to gauge if your team values the whole continuum of characteristics. Just know that everyone outside the usual stories sees it clear as day.

Eliminate bias in your stories with diverse leadership

There is something you can do to swell your story bank with fresh stories of worthwhile achievements. Diversify your leadership and then give those representatives real influence on the kinds of stories you tell. Encourage them to deliberately collect and elevate the stories that emphasize the greater array of values, not the same old stuff on repeat. Tell diversity stories at work without making your protagonist a token. You can even have unusual messengers share them. It’s going to be uphill all around but that’s what getting better is.

If you want to start small as you check your stories for bias, avoid adjectives typically used to describe one type of person over another. Ask Jim down the hall; he’s a sassy brunette, he’ll tell you.

Meet TreeTop Barbie

Back to Barbie and being more than a pretty face. Treat yourself to the delightful story of TreeTop Barbie and how Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, an ecologist working in tree canopies, changed the Barbie dialogue. With her thrift store Barbies and homemade accessories, she landed a partnership with the National Geographic Society and now we get Marine Biologist Barbie, Conservationist Barbie, Entomologist Barbie, etc. Barbie turned 60, went back to school, and got her degree. You get that paper, STEM QUEEN.

TreeTop Barbie is instantly interesting from her helmet down to her galoshes. She would probably hang out with Self-sufficient Barbie. Maybe they met in statistics as college sophomores and stayed friends. Now they’re grown-ups who speak at conferences. They may be pretty but who cares because they’re adventurous, disciplined, curious, principled, or whatever else makes for true beauty.

So this season, may all our toys—from the forthright Barbie with the union card and hard hat to the empathetic muscled action figure with a baby carrier—become the perfect plastic we always needed.

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