It often happens to me, when working on unconscious bias issues with groups, during the dialogues that follow the nudge exercises that are proposed, to hear statements that seem to aim at paying a compliment, at saying something positive about a specific category. Some examples of these statements are “eh but you know, behind every man there is a great woman”, or “in Finance we prefer to recruit Asians, they are exceptional with mathematics”, or, again, “you know, women have empathy, it’s men who don’t understand”, or “no one understand women better than gays “. Every time I hear these phrases, I try, together with the people who participate, to have a dialogue to explore their origin, their underlying worldview, and to reflect together on how labels, even apparently positive ones, reduce the complexity of relationships.

Positive stereotype

The positive stereotype is the bias resulting from an in-out group dynamic and it is growing in these years in which talking about diversity has become mainstream. It starts with a conscious ‘good’ intention, such as that of repairing past injustices. Basically it consists in putting a positive label on all the members of a social group: people from China are good at maths, women are relational, gays love fashion, African-Americans are good athletes, seniors citizens have wisdom and experience…etc. It probably starts from wanting to carry out a good deed, i.e. rebalancing discriminations and inequalities as a result of which that group has been or is being marginalised and thus demonstrating one’ s distance from racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism…

Pragaya Agarwal in her excellent book “Sway” points out that the negative stereotype bias tends to be descriptive but becomes prescriptive – thus obliging the group it targets to a certain social behaviour – when it is positive.  This expectation of behaviour becomes even more difficult to break, precisely because it starts from an intention to favour, support, highlight positive characteristics, so it becomes more burdensome, for the group that is the object of it, to try to break it.

She then goes on to highlight the risks of the positive stereotype:

1.Reinforcing the idea that there are determining biological differences underlying skills and behaviour and, as a corollary, that other abilities are absent. Thus, for example, those who excel in sports will have lower cognitive abilities, those who are good at managing relationships will not be able to achieve objectives, etc.

2.Reducing the possibility of intervening in negative stereotypes, shifting the focus to a positive characteristic.

3.Spreading the idea of “model minorities” and with it the obligation, for those who belong to these social groups, to conform or, otherwise, be perceived as deviant, not good enough, and together with it, the “depersonalisation”: one is no longer an individual but only a member of that group, defined by that stereotype.

  1. As a consequence of point 3, a risk of discrimination within that group that introjects the positive stereotype. The members implicitly accept that the stereotype describes them, thus avoiding the risk of having to break it and being considered and regarded as less capable. An example of this is the risk of stigmatisation even by members of the same gender for women and men who do not conform to the gender stereotype “take care, take charge” which can lead, in the short term, and in order not to run the risk of breaking the stereotype, to make professional or personal choices, in the name of the need for security and belonging, which then in the long term will be perceived as imprisoning.

So perhaps our challenge – but which may turn out to be a real opportunity – is this: can we dare to encounter somebody without putting them into boxes first, and allow ourselves to be surprised – and transformed – by who we discover?