16 - 22 Settembre, Roma

Did you know you were biased? Try these experiments and let’s talk about it!

I have been holding international Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) workshops for years now, and as an icebreaker (question), I tend to ask participants: “take 3 seconds to identify and then share the name of the first leader that comes to your mind.” You can do this little game yourself, take 3 seconds and think of a leader you particularly esteem or have been inspired by. 

Despite the international and diverse audience – intersectionally rich and indeed diverse – 3 names, among others, kept recurring: Martin Luther King, Obama, and Gandhi. As I ‘invented’ this game to get to know the class and the international cohort of students, along with their backgrounds and cultural legacies, I started getting bored of the rather standard answers I was given, and I therefore asked myself: “does your question actually tell you anything about your students? If so, the story is pretty much the same one.” And I could not accept that people from 100+ countries worldwide eventually gave me one question. 

I tried the same experiment for my art, law, and business classes, and I asked: “take 7 seconds to tell me the name of the first 3 artists that come to your mind.” Do it yourself, take 7 seconds, and let’s see what you come up with.

Surprisingly, even in this context the answers were eventually the same: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso turned out to be the most recurrent answers. One would ask: “how are they all the same? Why are you complaining? They mentioned 5 artists who are very different.” And s/he would be right; they are indeed all different artists, and yet they all share very common, intimate, and interrelated features some may not spot at a first glance. However, let’s make the effort to see through these answers. In depth: they are all men. White. Western.

Did you realize it yourself while reading their answers? I did not at first; but then that density, recurrence, and pattern became an eureka to me, they rang a bell. ‘The bell’ I am talking about has to do with biases. Despite talking to thousands of students from 100+ countries worldwide and with a high level of education – I mostly teach to senior BA and MA students – the answers were macroscopically the same. This means that, while prompted within a limited timeframe (the 3 o 7 seconds I assigned), people tend to exacerbate spontaneous answers (that can be manipulated and become less authentic if exposed to more time) that reveal that, no matter the gender, origin, or level of education, ‘leadership’ and ‘art’ are indeed a male, white, and western affair in the mind of most people worldwide. In fact, when I tried to ask: “tell me the name of the first 3 non-white artists that come to your mind,” they barely answered. The same happened when I asked the name “of the first 3 artists with disability,” or “LGBTQI+” Did you try yourself? I did, and despite my expertise in the field, I did experience some difficulty and poor immediacy. 

These questions and reflections consolidate the empirical deduction that, in fact, these two realms (leadership and art) are globally and unconsciously metabolized as a construct that can hardly be anything other than the privileged triangle I mentioned above (white, male, western). You can try to customize the question for other fields (science, power, engineering, etc.), and I am rather positive the answers would not differ that much. We can therefore conclude that even when we think of art and leadership – two worlds we often draw inspiration from – the most immediate response is male, white, and western centric. And the world is indeed engineered to perpetuate such biases and constructs; according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 86% artworks exhibited in some of the world’s major museums represent white men.

If you therefore plan on visiting a museum, you would most likely see: men, men, men, men, men, men, men, men, men. I apologize for the repetition, but I simulated the chances (indeed, almost 9 out of 10) anything else would happen. And the disturbing reading experience I meant to trigger (I am aware that repeating for 9 times the same word can be indeed disturbing) must be as disturbing for all the non-white, non-male, and non-western people that are usually forced to see the same non-representational narrative repeatedly. Worldwide.

This short text is therefore meant to address the great issues of representation, bias, and cultural representation that are indeed almost absent in international teaching practices and forums, symposia, or talks. The very empirical and dialogical tone I employed was meant to clarify that we all bear and perpetuate biases, and that we can all identify them rather easily – think of the 7-second experiment, cheap and quick, isn’t it?

As the Rome Future Week gives voice to a broad cohort of global leaders, listeners, and influencers, this preparatory article somehow serves as a warm-up content to then meet, discuss, and overcome together this sensitive aspect of human interactions that we all need, I believe, to be at least be aware of, to then think of the leaders of the future, or the artists of our present – to cite two cases, only – with mindfulness and indeed awareness. 

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