Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Last week I was making a train journey and happened to be jostling my way down an extremely squashed stairwell. Even though I could barely peer above the crowd, I noticed two men in front of me. One with a baby in a buggy, the other alongside him, dressed in a vermillion-coloured tracksuit, his heavy gold chains strewn around a neck inked with multiple tattoos, and a pair of shoulders as wide as a small sofa.
Just as I was ogling ‘Mr Scarlet’, he leaned towards Dad with a huge smile and said, ‘Can I help you down the stairs with your baby?’ Minutes later, when Mr Scarlet had ambled off into the crowds, Dad looked at me and confided, ‘Well, that was a surprise!’. I smiled in cahoots, and went off on my merry way.
It was only later that I had time to consider what had happened. Strictly on a millisecond’s glance, first impressions only, I had reached a huge assumption on what made Mr Scarlet tick. And it didn’t include him being the sort of man who would willingly assist a stranger on a heaving train station. Shame on me!
While the importance of first impressions is touted around as crucial in job interviews, when meeting the in-laws and appearing in court(!), they can also create embedded bias and stuck behaviour. Research reveals that it takes less than 1/10 of a second to form an assessment of a person from their face. And stereotyping is rife. If a man has a beard, we tend to believe he is more dominant, if someone makes eye contact we think they are more likely to be intelligent, if a woman has tattoos she comes across as more promiscuous.
And we are quick to form lasting impressions of others based on their initial behaviour, especially if it is negative. Peter Mende-Siedlecki in his Ted-Ed presentation, Should You Trust Your First Impression?, reveals that ‘this bias occurs because immoral behaviours are more diagnostic or revealing of a person’s true character.’ He talks about ‘impression updating’ where complex activity in the brain does allow us to change bias when there are examples of good and bad conduct – but even though we, as humans, want to believe that people are fundamentally good, we often still can’t let go of the thing that marred our impression in the first place.
In business, it is still a continual minefield for women under the harsh lens of snapshot appraisal. Pigeonholed by being blonde, wearing heels, lipstick, a shorter skirt, smiling too much, not smiling enough, being loud, being softly spoken, walking into a meeting too quickly, answering a question too slowly, just being female… it’s a ridiculous set of preconceptions based on minimal fact. As Alexander Todorov, a psychology professor at Princeton university states in his book Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, ‘we make too much out of too little information’.
In the tech world, male-dominance particularly plays a role. ‘It already starts in middle school, where boys are more likely to go into STEM fields,’ says Todorov, ‘But if you want to remove these biases, the best is to judge based on performance… you need to look beyond appearance.’ Thankfully, some companies are already moving in the right direction by setting blind coding tasks and anonymous interview systems.
The Female Quotient is a female-owned organisation committed to advancing equality in the workplace. They know only too well that women can be characterized from the outset, and they believe it will take up to 108 years to close the overall gender gap.
Kathy Taylor, a lawyer, tells the story of when she went for a job interview at a large legal practice. ‘I had dressed that morning in a trouser suit, and I had my hair pulled back in a ponytail. I had hardly any make-up on, just lipstick and mascara. Looking back, I realise I was already subconsciously caught up to the gender game by playing down my femininity. The CEO asked me all the relevant questions, and at the end of the interview commented that I would give the males in the practice a run for their money because I seemed like “a typical confident, fiery red head”. I left feeling really uncomfortable and I couldn’t help thinking that he would never verbalise such a cliché to a man. I did get offered the job, but I decided not to take it.’
This propensity to typecast a person tends to mean they will be more reluctant to reveal their authentic self. And as they disappear behind a label stamped on them at ‘hello’, all kinds of toxic and demeaning behaviour can take root. That person might never feel confident enough to reveal their vulnerability, or be able to make mistakes without worrying about judgement, or relaxed enough to take risks, or safe enough to ask for help.
Spending time getting to know someone, removing the biases of first impressions and searching the inner depths of a person’s character will enrich your relationships and create long-lasting empowerment. As complex human beings, with a multitude of emotions and insights just waiting to be discovered, surely we owe each other that?