Women and Public Policy Program Seminar Focuses on Gender and Negotiation

October 14, 2005
Rob Meyer

All of us are gender and race- biased to a certain extent. Not only that, but knowing your biases might not be enough to keep you from unconsciously acting upon them. That was the news delivered by Professor Mahzarin Banaji during her keynote address at the Women and Public Policy Program’s research seminar “Gender and Negotiation: Preferences, Stereotypes, and Power” Friday at the Kennedy School.

“Much of behavior is a result of unintentional processes,” said Banaji, a Harvard psychologist, whose talk was titled “Invisible Gender Bias: Powerful But Ordinary.”

Banaji said that race and gender are such fundamental categories of perception that we cannot easily distance ourselves from them. She used a series of simple visual tests to demonstrate how strong those perceptions can be — and how frequently they can be fooled. Banaji also showed how we often miss something happening right before our eyes when focusing on other information, a phenomenon referred to as “inattentional blindness.”

Knowing these facts about behavior should change the way we react to such issues as workplace diversity and gender issues, according to Banaji. If it isn’t possible — despite our best attempts — to intellectually control our biases when making decisions such as hiring, the answer lies, Banaji pointed out, in changing the environment of the decision maker, and diversity programs can be a part of that solution.

We'd all like to think we are in control of our own behavior, Banaji said, stressing that it is important for everyone to realize that when it comes to biases, “I am that person.”

Earlier in the conference, Kennedy School Associate Professor Iris Bohnet, presented research (coauthored with Benedikt Hermann and Kennedy School Professor Richard Zeckhauser) measuring how trust and risk acceptance differs when comparing people in Western countries (U.S. and Switzerland) from people in Gulf countries (Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirites). For example, the authors’ research found that men tend to be more risk-averse than women in the Gulf countries, but less risk-averse than women in the Western countries. Click here for the research paper in full.

The seminar was cosponsored by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

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Mahzarin Banaji image

Mahzarin Banaji