The writer Jessica Nordell had trouble finding studies showing the cumulative impact of everyday gender bias on the earning potential of women.
So she worked with a computer scientist to develop a simulation called NormCorp to measure just that, stripping away all other variables beyond gender that might interfere with the results. When she set the simulation in motion, she found that the patterns of gender bias already documented in workplaces (such as overlooking the contributions of women) do, in fact, lead to pay and promotion disparities.
It’s the sort of finding that seems obvious but is often contested for lack of “hard evidence” — and because acknowledging it would suggest that we should do something about it, which would mean taking on existing power imbalances. The aversion to this, Nordell writes, is how you get a scenario where a supreme court justice opines that systemic gender discrimation is impossible when laws against discrimination are on the books.
Unconscious bias in general, the subject of Nordell’s book The End of Bias, is a lot like that, she argues.
It’s something that affects us all, but that we’re hardwired to ignore unless we take a step back to think about and observe it. Confronting your own bias is like conscious breath control — just as we can shift our attention to feel our lungs expand and contract, we can shift our attention to focus on the frameworks through which we view the world.
Every situation you find yourself in is being interpreted through the lens of your own history and bias. Say you were bitten by a dog as a child, and today you see a dog coming down the sidewalk on a leash. Your brain might reflexively perceive the dog as a threat and cause you to get scared. Now, just because one dog bit you doesn’t mean all dogs are dangerous. But that’s the sort of autopilot mode that unconscious bias encourages — mindlessly using specific examples from the past to inform all future examples.
Just because you have harmful bias doesn’t make you a bad person — the frameworks through which bias operates are inherited by the society around you. But once you recognize this bias, Nordell argues, you can take steps to free yourself from it. That’s important not just for those who might be harmed by your bias, but also for your own well-being. As Nordell shows, indulging in harmful bias is like drinking poison.
“Learning that there are approaches that have been shown to change people’s behavior has been surprising,” Nordell told Global Citizen in October. “The reality of bias is so big and all-encompassing. It's very hard to see it all. There is a philosopher who has this idea of the hyperobject, a phenomenon that is so vast and all-encompassing that it’s impossible to see. I would say that white supremacy and patriarchy are hyperobjects that are so completely enveloping and invasive into so many aspects of life that it's often difficult to see them.
“That's why rigorously engaging with one’s own mind is the beginning of agency, of gaining the ability to see the invisible, and beginning to change,” she said.
The End of Bias is a deeply compassionate and rigorous exploration of all the ways bias can limit our engagement with the world, and how personal bias multiplies on a society-wide scale to create structural barriers and unjust hierarchies.
It’s also a guide to liberating yourself from bias. It’s not something that will happen overnight, but rather a lifelong journey of humility, curiosity, and love.
Nordell dives into the history of sociologists and psychologists studying the phenomenon of unconscious bias. She then takes us through elite colleges, corporate law firms, rural police departments, and preschools to demonstrate the effects of bias today, drawing on all the latest research.
Many of the examples are both jarring and all-too-familiar. Like the women pursuing STEM degrees in college who face condescending comments and predatory advances and drop out to avoid further harm. Or the Black men and women who are criminalized for merely existing.
She discusses the ways in which bias has impaired her own life and the unsettling truths that arrived when she took a close look at her family history.
But for all the darkness that the book presents, it’s ultimately hopeful because bias, as Nordell shows, is not static. Like all of life, it’s in flux, daily reinforced or challenged, and can be changed in positive ways. It takes hard, consistent work, but it’s possible.
Throughout, Nordell shows us pioneers who break through barriers of bias to create spaces of inclusivity and empathy.
There’s the police sergeant who reduces the violence of cops by encouraging meditation and yoga; the scientist who takes a job at MIT and goes on to mentor a new generation of women scientists; and the corporate lawyer who overhauls his workplace to end the “pregnancy penalty” that so often undermines the careers of women.
Nordell eloquently shares an important message: we all have the power to assess the ways in which bias shapes and limits our existence and choose, instead, to think and live in ways that affirm the full humanity of those around us.
The promise of The End of Bias is a whole new world. But that starts with your own mind.