Normally I love what Adam Grant has to say as a bestselling author, organisational psychologist, podcast host and wildly popular social media commentator.
As a woman of colour in the corporate world, I see him most often as an ally with important ideas. But as I woke up on International Women’s Day last week, at a time when diversity and bias were very much in the spotlight, it was hard to miss one of his latest posts, this time full of bias and privilege.
It read: “Boasting about your knowledge doesn’t display confidence. It betrays arrogance. Trumpeting your achievements doesn’t signal status. It reveals insecurity. The true sign of being comfortable with your expertise and success is being forthcoming about your ignorance and failures.”
I was able to capture a screenshot before the post was later removed from Grant’s Instagram and Twitter.
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This may be great advice if society gives you the benefit (or privilege) of assuming that you have knowledge, achievements and expertise, and that you deserve success.
Society right now is most likely to give you that benefit if you’re Caucasian, male, middle-class and working in a professional role. As a woman of colour who has had other people voice doubts about my suitability for success since before I can remember, I don’t often feel that’s a benefit that’s given to me. And I can never assume that it will be.
Grant’s comments were blind to the realities faced by many women and historically marginalised people. The feeling that when we walk into an interview, an event or meeting where we are most likely in the minority, we know we have to prove why we deserve to be there. His advice plays right into the biases we face, while at the same time reinforcing them.
I felt confused and angry when I saw this post. Where was the nuance, or mention, that this isn’t true for everyone thanks to unconscious (or conscious) bias and stereotypes? Many historically marginalised people have the opposite problem — we’re not given positive messages by society about sharing our achievements or don’t get space for our voices to start with. Or, when we do get such space, we get punished for it. Any time I’ve interviewed for a job or pitched a client, I have been worried about talking about my strengths and achievements, out of the fear of being seen as arrogant. But I know if I don’t put myself forward, I won’t get hired.
The greatest irony in Grant’s comments? That he speaks of being forthcoming about your own ignorance and failures but creates no space for his own potential blind spots within the binary tone of the post. While the post has been taken down, and obviously for a reason, I’m yet to see anything acknowledging what the comments overlooked — that reckoning and reflection is hopefully happening now.
Unfortunately for women, we’re often confronted with ‘double binds’ at work: that mismatch between conventionally feminine qualities (being nice, caretaking, unselfish) and qualities seen as important for leadership (being decisive, assertive, independent). Numerous studies show that behaviours suggesting self-confidence or assertiveness in men are often seen as arrogant in women. This is one thing that makes it hard for us to talk about our own achievements and successes. Yet if we’re too nice, caretaking and unselfish, we’re less likely to be respected and are told to do more, be better or passed over. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk.
This bind at work is even harder for women of colour. According to research, women of colour are often held to a much higher standard than their white and male peers and are presumed to be less qualified despite their credentials, work produce or business results. In the Australian 2021 Women of Colour Workplace survey, most respondents (57%) felt they had faced challenges in the workplace relating to their identity as a woman of colour. Starting from this point, Adam Grant’s advice about sharing about ignorance and failures seems even less helpful.
I’ve heard the phrase that ‘if you have a brain, you have unconscious bias’. Adam Grant has a great brain so, like all of us, this may be his unconscious bias coming through. And Twitter isn’t the most nuanced platform either. I don’t think anyone should be demonised for their bias — we all have them, myself included — and we all need space to learn and see differently. But I do think bias is important to point out, even when it’s uncomfortable, so we can see what it looks like in everyday life. The best unconscious bias training helps us to recognise bias, manage our own, change our behaviour and track our progress.
So how can we shift? My suggestion is to notice whose voices you’re listening to most, and try to recognise your own bias or assumptions.
Search for information that contradicts stereotypes. Listen to views from different kinds of people and consider their diverse perspectives as valid. Support women of colour professionals, artists and colleagues. Read the words of people with disabilities (for example, We’ve Got This, stories by disabled parents, which was released just last week). Look for events or commentary featuring diverse voices, follow accounts like Yasmin Poole Nyadol Nyuon or me, or read this piece by Sisonke Msimang.
Challenge yourself to break the bias, one post at a time.
This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.