Self-Awareness is the Best Path to Fairness

August 7, 2018

Rogério Colantuono

Rogério Colantuono is the Strategy Director at Grey.

In 1986, Swedish scientists asked U.S. drivers “Are you a better-than-average driver?” More than 80% said “Yes.” Of course, this mathematically absurd declaration of skill had less to do with statistics than it did the biases influencing our everyday lives. That’s why – though there’s no study I’ve found on the subject – we can only infer that a survey asking men, “Are you a better-than-average listener on issues affecting women,” might get a pretty similar outcome.

McKinsey’s 2017 “Women in the Workplace” study shows that 40% of U.S. women agree their gender has held back their career advancement (vs. 8% for men), so we know there’s much listening yet to be done – and it seems that somewhat more men are listening, or at least trying. At a panel held at Grey for Women’s History Month, I had the opportunity to discuss with female and male colleagues the barriers to creating a more neutral environment where everyone can thrive equally. You could see, in the room, how just hearing perspectives brings us together and promotes fairness.

However, hearing is not the same as listening. And what we find in the larger world is that even when men listen to support an equal environment, an additional, important element still impacts the potential for greater empathy and fairness: self-awareness. Or lack thereof.

It’s human to distance yourself from unfairness and bad feelings – to listen to stories of misconduct and think how That Other Person was disrespectful to women. But meanwhile, some of the same well-intentioned men who are able to notice disrespect in others go about their days committing lesser (or equal, or greater) offenses themselves, not noticing that they’re part of the problem. They learn to identify unfairness in others, but not see it in their own actions. 

So while there is no such thing as an unbiased person, and many men have good intentions to make change, the real issue is: if we live oblivious to small and big hypocrisies, we will never really make a conscious effort to break free from them. I’m certainly not perfect. Everyone is different and progress takes a lot of forms. But that said, self-awareness could be the key, a next evolution, for men looking to actually take part in change.

With this in mind, I imagine the potential thoughts and behaviors of a more self-aware man in our industry…

Self-Awareness of Cultural Programming: It’s unquestionable that personal behavior is influenced by societal behavior. A more self-aware man is able to identify when it’s culture speaking (inherited behaviors, pre-established gender roles, peer pressure) instead of himself, and not let the former take over. He is constantly exercising an “outsider view” that gives perspective over his own actions. When I moved to NY from Brazil, I believe I experienced a glimpse of this perspective and its importance; trying to avoid crossing any lines, I found myself “reading” the different day-to-day cultural nuances of the local working environment behavior and at that moment the new limits and codes were very evident. But I saw this outsider perspective fade as I got used to the new reality.

Self-Awareness of Blind Spots: It’s easy to identify biases in others. Identifying them in ourselves is a more difficult story. But a more self-aware man is able to see the common biases that happen everyday with others and do a “self check” if they also happen with himself. He also knows this is a process – admit when he fails, reviving his dedication and improving his attitude. And if it’s easier to see bias in others, why not try to help them to identify it by bringing it up in a constructive way as it’s happening, even if it was unintended? If culture is a bandwagon, it takes a huge collective effort and responsibility to de-program it.

Self-Awareness of Discomfort: We all believe we are great listeners, but in reality we tend to only listen to information that confirms our worldview while blocking uncomfortable facts. It takes active effort to exercise empathy, take the speaker seriously and let any subject sink in even (or especially) if it contrasts with the way we think. That’s why, even though it’s hard for everyone to listen to a shocking report (such as Salma Hayek’s on Harvey Weinstein), a more self-aware man knows the importance of actively going deeper on the subject, talking about it to others and trying to put himself in the other person’s shoes instead of following it superficially like many men did. 

A self-aware approach seems vital to drive equality in the work environment, but we ultimately face a question of what that looks like in action. And the fact is, there aren’t absolutes. What works for one doesn’t work for all. But in the spirit of progress, men should push themselves to ask, “How am I behaving – and how might I change if and when I’m creating unfairness?” That’s where the personal journey to action begins. 

Especially in our industry, which thrives at its best through openness – but encompasses its fair share of egos – the willingness to admit our own imperfections becomes even more critical.