Holidays, gifts & gender stereotypes

"The only gift is a portion of thyself." Ralph Waldo Emerson

For this week's bias we chose to remain in the light-heartedness and playfulness of the end-of-year celebrations that have just ended and on a topic that we are passionate about: gender bias and in particular behaviors that risk reinforcing it from childhood.

Just before Christmas I was working on a webinar with a group of women managers, of different ages and backgrounds, on gender stereotypes. Dialoguing on the topic together for some time already, we had the opportunity to explore its origins, impacts on professional life and career, risks, tools to neutralize them etc., so it was not a group new to reflection on these topics. I had just finished a very interesting book, actually read for preparing another project, for a group of teachers "Le manuel qui dezyngue les stereotypes" by Nathalie Anton, published at the end of the year in France by Eyrolles.Towards the middle of the book, the author proposes an amusing tool, which she herself defines as caricature, and I had the intuition that it could serve to play with the theme together with my group. So, in the midst of the pre-Christmas atmosphere, I used it as a warming up exercise, called it using the French expression "Cadeau impoisonné?" (which could be translated as Poisoned Gift?).

I bring it back to you in its entirety:

Have you already given or are about to give one of these toys as a gift To a little girl To a little boy
Construction vehicle like excavator or tractor
Cooking pans
Fire truck or police car
Racetrack for cars
Princess disguise


I invite you to fill out the chart, as my participants did at the beginning of the webinar, and then answer the questions in the last part of the post.

We've talked about gender stereotypes often in the cycle of posts on bias on the Nexus blog. They can be defined as "a set of beliefs that people hold, about what it means to be a woman or a man." Their content evolves over time and varies across cultures. Gender stereotypes engender expectations about social and professional roles that are linked to a person's gender.   Over the years, a series of widely publicized "pop" research suggested that these roles, for biological reasons, were divided, simplifying, into roles of action for men and care for women. The evolution of studies has allowed to question a number of myths and to establish that the similarities between the brains of men and women are much more than the differences (see, among many, the beautiful and rigorous book by Gina Rippon "Gendered Brain"). Myths, with their simplifying appeal, are very difficult to deconstruct and abandon. As Gina Rippon points out, for example, if by now no one could seriously argue scientifically the inferiority of women, another gender prison becomes, the one of the supposed "complementarity" between men and women and its praise, even behind good intentions to ensure that female characteristics such as the ability to empathize, to listen, to relate with others can emerge. Good intentions which, however, generate stereotypes, albeit positive, that are equally imprisoning: complementarity becomes another way of defining men and women in a static, limited way, and of making complexity with all its facets fit into the duality of the "action/care" paradigm.

Children begin very early, from the age of 2/3, to categorize the world and make inferences about how it works. On gender this means that very early on they begin to associate actions, activities, professions, roles with one gender rather than another. Parents, teachers, books, television, video games can reinforce these inferences or challenge them, propose alternative ones.

The exercise on the chart sparked a lot of laughter among the webinar participants, but also exchanges and reflections. Needless to say, for most of the group, the results were fairly predictable. Ships, diggers, tracks, trucks etc. given to little boys, makeup, dolls, pans etc. given to little girls, with a few rare exceptions.

This exercise was a cheerful, non-guilty moment to reflect on one of the many micro behaviors that, when we are aware of them, are revealing of our mental models, in this case regarding gender. If we take a time to breathe and analyze, if we slow down, they can give us insights into how we function and possible alternatives. For example, after doing the exercise without thinking too much we can stop and ask ourselves: what are the patterns that have guided my choices? What does it mean for me to be a woman? man? What do I associate with the genders? What activities characterize a woman and a man? What can a woman do? A man? What does the gift I am giving for this baby girl or boy mean? What implicit messages am I conveying? What are the effects of these messages? Are they messages of encouragement, of openness? What impacts will they have on his or her choices? What do they nurture and what do they discourage for her or him?

Taking up the quote in the opening, if it is true that "Every gift is a part of us," by choosing it for the younger generation we are also transmitting our model, and with it an idea of the future, a possibility/impossibility of abandoning what has been true for centuries and no longer works and making room for something different. And on this transmission and its implications we can choose to be aware of the consequences we produce.

"There's a crisis, let's appoint a woman": dynamics and pitfalls of the Glass Cliff

Suzanne is an executive at a large French company in the energy sector. She is told that she will be leading the digital transformation project, a key cross-cutting project that will involve the whole company over the coming months, a role for which she will report directly to the CEO. The project was led until now by Jean-André. It had started in 2019 but, whether due to the COVID crisis or other factors, it was stagnating and was not delivering the desired results.  In proposing the role to her, she is told that one of the causes of the past failures was Jean-André's inability to talk about the project to the people involved, in a convincing way and not being able to show enough empathy in communicating the changes that would involve the staff and thus the downward spiral of all the climate indicators, given the general discontent that the transformation is causing. The project also started because of the loss of market share that the company was experiencing, a loss that was amplified during the first year of the project.  Suzanne accepted the role with enthusiasm, telling herself that her appointment, in a corporate culture that historically prefers men in visible, highly political roles such as the one she had been offered, must be the result of a new wind, also brought about by the creation of the Diversity, Equality & Inclusion function, a wind that is blowing through the entire society and perhaps finally producing real change.

Since the mid-1970s, particularly thanks to Marylin Loden who first used the expression at a conference, the concept of the Glass Ceiling has made its appearance in organizational and gender studies. In essence, it refers to the series of structural (low pay, low status of assigned roles, etc.) and cultural barriers, in particular gender stereotypes, which mean that women's careers often stop at middle management roles. More recent, however, is the emergence of the Glass Cliff phenomenon. This is a concept created in 2005 by two researchers, Michelle Ryan & Alexander Haslam. Impressed by a Times article inspired by research that seemed to show that women and minorities, particularly ethnic minorities, in leadership roles generate below-average performance, the researchers looked in more detail at the contexts in which women were appointed to senior positions.  One common feature emerged that completely challenges the findings of previous research, shifting the focus from individual capabilities to the field in which they can/cannot be expressed. The contexts in which those appointments were made, in fact, could be defined as 'deep crisis'. And so, just like on a dangerous Glass Cliff, women appointed to leadership positions in these contexts multiplied the risk of failure, of being singled out as incapable even publicly, and the stress resulting from particularly strenuous conditions, which feeds the vicious circle of the glass cliff. It could be argued that success or failure in highly complex positions is influenced by many variables besides gender and crisis conditions. Numerous other studies have examined choices in fictitious scenarios that made it possible to isolate some variables, confirming the glass cliff phenomenon: women and minorities were preferred to white men in preference during crisis situations.

We might at this point ask ourselves: why is it that, during a crisis, it is easier for the Glass Ceiling in organisations (but also, as has been shown, in politics and sport) to be overcome, thereby putting categories hitherto excluded from power at high risk of failure? One possible explanation is that in these particularly delicate and difficult contexts, the skills sought after by those in leadership roles are different. If in 'normal' times, an agentic leadership is preferred, with characteristics of rapidity, assertiveness, determination, a leadership that is recognised above all in men, corresponding to the stereotype "Think manager, think male" (V.E. Schein, 1973), in difficult times instead "Think Crisis, Think Female". The skills desired are different and preferably belong to the sphere of managing emotions, creating containers to manage resistance to change, empathy, attention to the problems of others. This is what Burns has defined as transformational leadership and the "communality" skills, considered (consciously or unconsciously) a "nice to have" in normal times, are recognised as central and allow women to be more seen as possible occupants of positions of power, because these skills correspond to the nurturing, maternal, relational female stereotype.

We could assume that this bias is one of the components that influenced the appointment in Suzanne's case, which was presented at the beginning of the post. The offer of the role of director of a key, visible, important, and 'political' project comes after a failure. Suzanne arrives amidst a context of loss of market share, disastrous results from the project, falling climate indicators, general discontent, and a high risk of failure. This is another characteristic of the Glass Cliff phenomenon. Excessive positive projections are arriving on the chosen woman. A possible hypothesis to explain the failure dynamics of the Glass Cliff can be made starting from Wilfred Bion's basic assumption of 'dependence' on the leader. The members of the organisation, confronted with their incompetence to work on the task, project all the power to get out of this failed situation onto the appointed woman. If she introjects the organisational projection, the stress generated by the risk of not succeeding and the realisation that the conditions for success are not met, can generate, on a personal level, an effective impossibility to act to the best of one's potential.  This personal dynamic is also paralleled by a system dynamic. The actors and actresses of the organisation, projecting all power onto the person of the leader, are deprived of responsibility for the transformation, the expectation, conscious and unconscious, is that the work will be done by someone else.

Another bias can be the cause of appointing a woman in this kind of situation. It is an unconscious desire, on the part of an organisational culture based on male stereotypes of success, to maintain the status quo and thus to see the appointed woman fail, so that the idea that power is a man's thing can be confirmed.

In our individual and collective accompaniment work, we have encountered the Glass Cliff not only on gender but also on specific roles - perhaps because they are perceived as deeply challenging the status quo, comparing to others more traditional function and roles, for example in sales, marketing, production and so on.  - in particular those that accompany, in various ways, Corporate Social Responsibility, or Responsible Investment. There are cases in which organisations seem to have set up the role in order to show that change is not possible, or that it is only on the shoulders of the person or function that takes it on, freeing the rest of the members of the company from responsibility. The person taking the role, in these cases, whether male or female, is acting on a very dangerous slope, from which it is easier to fall than to be effective.

As with all biases, the underlying unconscious dynamics of the Glass Cliff can be very mobilising and remain implicit if individually and collectively we cannot find the right distance to name them and the will to transform them.

What might be some concrete paths for doing so? Here are some clues that we have worked during Suzanne’s coaching, before she stepped into the role:

  1. Before taking on the role, Suzanne must carefully negotiate the resources that will be made available to her, commensurate with the importance of the project, the expected results, the impacts. She has to set, together with the direction, realistic and measurable indicators of success to anchor her action in reality. One of the most important resources for success is precisely the visible commitment of the company's top management and CEO, which must be clear and well-defined from the outset and, if necessary, revised following feedback during the action.
  2. A second step is to build a map of possible allies, create a strong network that can support her and provide her with resources to achieve her goals.
  3. Another important element is a groundwork on the organisational culture, on the one hand to bring out the mental models and to transform them, on the other hand to clarify everyone's expectations and responsibilities regarding the digital transformation project. The glass cliff becomes less dangerous if one is not alone in walking along it.
  4. Even deeper work involves clarifying stated and acted organisational leadership models and collectively questioning these models. Suzanne will need not only transformational leadership skills to enable her to deal with the emotional side and the resistance to transformation, but also agentic skills, when for example she will have to decide which practices to abandon because they no longer bring organisational vitality and how distruptive the change will have to be for the organisation. These competences are precisely those which, in contexts where gender stereotypes are present and unconsciously guide people's gaze, appreciation and judgement, find it difficult to be seen and accepted when they are expressed by women, from whom determination, assertiveness, speed and risk-taking are not collectively expected. The regenerative leadership model proves to be much more useful and inclusive, to get away from two-way models that risk reinforcing these stereotypes.




Sunk cost bias: when persevering beyond a reasonable doubt turns out to be a bad idea

We are reading a book that we are not liking at all. But we paid 20 euros for it, so we decide to finish it, in spite of Pennac and the third of his list of reader's rights which states "It is not necessary to finish a book". We are not satisfied with our work, our energy has been waning for a few years now and we no longer find much sense in it, we would like to do something else, maybe start again in another sector, in another role, or simply devote ourselves to cooking. We have an offer for a position below ours for a job we would love. But we've spent years training, getting degrees and Master's degrees to get a career, we can' t throw away everything we've achieved, better to stay. The project started two years ago in the company, which seemed to promise exceptional results, is not giving the expected results, despite all the corrective actions we have tried to take, despite the increase of the dedicated budget, despite the fact that the best engineers are working on it...we cannot leave it now, we have already invested too much, sooner or later it will bear fruit.

Maybe you recognized yourself in the three examples above, or maybe you can think of other situations in which continuing has prevailed over changing, stopping, doing something else. What they have in common is that, in spite of all the signals that tell us that the decision we have made needs to be revised, it is as if there is something acting on an individual and collective level: we cannot change it. Sometimes it's just a matter of stopping doing what we're doing, others, as in the case of changing jobs, of choosing between two alternatives, one of which, the one we don't choose, appears, if analyzed rationally, to be better. The root of this blockage is an unconscious evolutionary tendency. When faced with the possibility of interrupting an empty investment and therefore a future gain of resources to invest elsewhere, we tend instead to avoid losses, anchoring ourselves in the past: it is the bias (fallacy) of sunk costs, also known as Concorde effect, from the striking example of Anglo-French stubbornness in pursuing a failed investment.

This bias is not to be confused with perseverance, the ability to wait for the results of projects, actions, activities with an uncertain outcome but with a possible happy ending. The sunk costs bias concerns those situations in which there is no rational possibility of success, all the data confirm this and despite this we remain tenaciously attached. Clearly it is not only a matter of loss of an economic investment, the costs are also emotional and the higher the involvement we feel the more difficult it will be to let go of the object that has captured our energies. However, when perseverance becomes an ideal, a diktat, an absolute, when it is decontextualized and promoted as a feature always and only positive, using a male paradigm of reading success, the pressure to continue even what no longer makes sense, can become so strong that we lose sight of the rationality of persisting.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that this tendency isn't unique to humans, also clarifying why it's so hard to quit. In a paper published in 2018 in the journal Science are exposed the results of an experiment, which establish that even mice and rats are subject to this fallacy, opening, according to the researchers, many new avenues on the study, for example, of what happens to the brain in the case of addictions to drugs or other. The "sunk costs" accompany us in the towers of glass and steel in which we live our organizational life, another of the close links of the human species with the rest of the animal world. Also, in another interesting research from the American Psychological Association, sunk cost bias was studied in individuals from different cultures. The research shows that it is a cross-cultural bias that touches individuals from even very distant cultures.

The unrecoverable cost bias is not limited to damaging the rational choices of individuals, groups and organizations. It acts, and produces much greater damage, even at the level of economic and political macro-systems, making it difficult to fight climate change, especially in those sectors, such as energy, or construction, which are characterized by long-term investments, started in years of supposed/imagined continuity of low cost of fossil fuels, of non-regulation of emissions, of consumption without concern for the future of the planet. It is in these sectors, in which investments are recoverable only after decades of use, that it becomes more difficult to stop looking at the past and integrate rational elements in the decision, such as the agreement of the scientific community on the climate impacts of business as usual.

What can we do, at an individual, organizational, and societal level, to avoid falling into the trap of sunk costs?

We have seen above that the sunk cost bias finds fertile ground in an implicit understanding of the world in which the fact of letting go of what does not succeed, the abandonment of a project, of a job, of a production system, is read as a defeat, a shame, a weakness, something to be shunned. This kind of worldview does not contemplate the value of acknowledging error and vulnerability, and therefore risks anchoring us to the past, to an illusion of consistency, of equation between the effort made and the result hoped for, thus preventing us from seeing that persevering will only be the source of other irrational choices, other costs, other losses.  In Nexus we are particularly sensitive to this kind of bias because it is one of those that make regeneration impossible, preventing what must die from being let go and energy from being able to go where there is life, where the future asks us to be.

On an individual and collective level, it is important instead to slow down and bring what is unconscious to be explicit. What are the costs of continuity, what are the negative impacts on the future? The abandonment of a past in which one has invested a great deal starts with a process of revisiting, reinterpreting, allowing one to see the mental models that influence action in order to be able to transform them. It is a process analogous to that of Nature, which leads to the regeneration of the intention to align it with the evolutions of the context.

Shiny object bias and organic innovation processes

In collective folklore, the magpie is accused of being attracted to shiny objects, going so far as to steal them. But the magpie is not the only one to be inexorably attracted to shiny objects; human beings also suffer from this fatal attraction. One possible explanation could be sought in the ancestral need to have water available, which would have created this routine of positive association between what glows and the bodies of water necessary for the maintenance of life. The metaphor of the shiny object is therefore used to indicate the attraction that we may unconsciously feel for everything that is or seems new, to the detriment of what in our eyes is old, already (even if illusorily) known, tried, used and that we are ready to abandon for something more shiny, more attractive. This bias is called 'shiny object bias'. The bias, as with the others we have seen so far, operates at both the individual and collective level. A complementary explanation for this bias is the so-called 'memory effect', which directs our interest towards what is more recent and can be more easily recalled in memory, combined with a tendency to prefer immediate rather than future rewards. Our survival has also been ensured by our ability to seek out gratification and novelty. Our brain operates on two circuits, one emotional and one rational. With respect to the more 'emotional' system, recent studies show that the ventral striatum plays a central role, in connection with the limbic system, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. Reward activates this system first. The automatic response makes the new object, the new project, the new product, the new subject to be studied, attract our attention, in search of immediate gratification, even if irrational. It is the kind of response that, among others, Dan Ariely and his research group have studied, which generates irrational preferences, such as "better 20 euros now than 25 in a week", "better half a bar of chocolate now than a whole bar tomorrow". But also, "it is better to spend half an hour on social networks than to finish the project that has been going on for a month", "it is better to start a new relationship than to solve the problems of the old one", "it is better to have a new job than to deepen the current one" etc. at an individual level. And which, on a collective level, pushes people to quickly abandon markets that have not yet been fully explored, products, project groups, organisational theories, paths of organisational development, even, paradoxically, when they work very well, out of the sheer need to move towards more shiny objects. The shiny object also works for political systems and is especially used during election campaigns to distract voters from critical issues that might put candidates in a bad light.

In organisational cultures that are "victims" of the shiny object bias, innovation risks becoming ideological, unrelated to purpose, without a real strategic and long-term perspective.

The shiny object does not make us run towards deep innovation, but becomes, when we are caught in the trap of the new at all costs, an automatic response to an internal need, generating short-term rewards.

Dan Ariely shows how, when we manage to be aware and also activate the long-term decision-making system, the prefrontal cortex, and defer the reward, we gain more freedom of decision and manage to give perspective to our actions by managing to open up a space in the present of projection of the decision that allows us to wait for the future reward.

So what can we do to avoid falling victim to the shiny object bias?


At the level of the individual, the group, the collective and the political system, one way out of our mental models is to think of our decision-making processes as ecosystemic processes.  Otto Scharmer's U-theory, for example, invites us to a deep exploration, to get out of the "downloading" of reality that locks us into past and automatic responses. In the case of the shiny object, paradoxically, going towards the new one actually remains within a stimulus-response scheme, within processes of procrastination, within the universe of the Social Network which risks, by constantly offering us new shiny objects, guiding our attention and taking away part of our free will. The sensing process of U-theory instead invites us to become aware of the patterns that guide behaviour, to explore alternatives, to free ourselves from defences and fear of exploring our individual and collective purpose and to connect with our deepest intention. It is through this connection though that the innovation process becomes ecosystemic, truly disruptive and in line with the needs of the context.

So where does Regeneration fit in with all this? Well, Regeneration includes/involves innovation, but is not making it its Purpose, in the kind of dogmatic way that “shiny object” cultures have tended to do over the last couple of decades. Rather, Regeneration is a going back to our deepest roots, to our primary Intention – seeking direction from it. Innovation becomes a means to an end: a new way of expressing that primary Purpose, better adapted to the way the world has evolved.

With a bit of a stretch, we could even say that Regeneration is not about seeking the shiny object out there – it is about birthing that pearl within us.


Why do we collectively look away while our house is burning?

During the last course of each term, with my ESSEC master's students, after having explored organisations from the point of view of people, analysing the dynamics and functioning of subsystems (groups, cultures, organisational subcultures, etc.) and collectives, we move on to analyse some contextual variables that serve to talk about the ethics of organisational action.  There is one part of this course that they are particularly passionate about and that is the part about collective biases that prevent action. I had two fascinating insights into this part recently. The first was during one of the Thursday evening online conferences of the Complexity Institute and in particular during a conference on ethics that Marinella De Simone gave together with Stefano Zamagni, in which Marinella presented a simple and powerful model of the functioning of the human being. The other is more recent and came to me from reading a really interesting article by John Steiner, entitled "Turning a Blind Eye".

The biases behind inaction

Before telling you about the biases behind inaction I would like to briefly introduce the first of these two ideas and leave the second as the conclusion of this post.

Marinella De Simone's model (for more details click on this link) invites us to consider how the human being can be considered as composed of three dimensions, the material dimension, the relational, and the spiritual one. The dimension at the centre of development currently, as it has been understood until now, is the material dimension, which is rooted in the notion of "having", and which has as its corollary the struggle for survival, competition, hypertrophy in consumption and satisfaction through consumption. Relationships, within this model, also become utilitarian, instrumental, based only on material exchanges. Spirituality remains hidden and is seen as superfluous.

The relational dimension, when it is lived in a complete way, allows us to connect deeply with others, understood as human beings but also with future generations, with climate refugees, and to feel their suffering by developing empathy. It is also the dimension that allows us to live in cooperative relationships.

The third dimension, the spiritual one, is the human dimension that has been less explored, at least by the general public, until now and is becoming more and more explored and present in recent years. It is the spiritual dimension that allows us to feel in search of individual and collective meaning, to feel connected with natural systems, with the Universe, with animals, allowing us to feel part of a Whole.

The mental meta-model that has caused inaction in the past (and present) can be partly explained by the fragmentation of these three dimensions. Concentrating only on the material dimension allows us to feel no pain for the suffering of others and the planet, and to feel disconnected and untouched by the laws of Nature. Focusing on the dimension of having rather than on the dimension of being allows us to continue to delude ourselves that everything can continue as it has been until now, exploiting the world around us in an anthropocentric, subject/object relationship of unlimited exploitation and consumption.

And here we have the biases, the beliefs that are part of this model and that are traps both for individual thought and above all for collective thought, and that lead to inaction:

  1. Illusion of 'elsewhere' which leads us to think that, for example, by sending our rubbish, our pollution, to an inconspicuous elsewhere (a distant island, the so-called third world countries, space) the problem is solved; and also, for example, that by hiding intensive farming and not informing us about animal suffering we can believe that our steak was born in a Styrofoam cabaret on the supermarket counter;
  2. Anthropocentrism - the bias that makes us think we are at the top of a hierarchy in which we can freely dispose of animals, plants and the planet's resources without worrying about the suffering and imbalances we create through our activities.
  3. Illusion of separation - what makes us represent ourselves as separate entities not connected with other human beings and nature
  4. "The invisible hand of the market". A debatable but very popular interpretation of Adam Smith's thought that if each individual works in pursuit of his or her own interests this will lead to the maximisation of the interest for society;
  5. The "future miracle" - something will happen, a new technology will come along, progress, a new leader (and in this bias we find the basic Bionian assumption "dependency") will save us through a solution that is now unimaginable, so it is pointless to worry about anything other than creating the conditions for technological progress to continue, at all costs;
  6. The "good old days" - it has always been done this way, why should we change? The climate has always varied, why should it be any different now? Even though the scientific community is now 100% in agreement in attributing climate change to human activity;
  7. Social conformity - which intervenes at both individual and collective levels preventing us from acting, with the excuse that "others, other companies, other states don't do it, why should we?";
  8. The 'Titanic' - which leads us to think that the planet is sinking anyway and that the processes of degradation that are taking place are not reversible. And that therefore we might as well enjoy it and continue to consume while we can, resigning ourselves to the fact that the world will sink anyway.


John Steiner, an English psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, in his article "Turning a blind eye" offers an interesting insight into the phenomenon of inaction. Steiner analyses the Oedipus myth and proposes two different interpretations. The first is the classical one. Oedipus is caught in the traps of destiny, guided by "invisible powers" and once he has intuited the possible truth he works to unveil it. But Steiner wonders about the blindness of Oedipus and of all the protagonists of the story, the mother-wife Jocasta, her brother Creon, the chorus of elders, the soothsayer Tiresias. And he issues a second hypothesis. The whole system of actors colludes with "turning a blind eye". How could Jocasta not wonder about Oedipus' resemblance to her late husband Laius, about the wounds on Oedipus' feet that she herself had inflicted, how could Oedipus be blind to information about Laius' death when he arrives at Thebes, and so on, all the different actors involved, why do they tacitly agree to cover it up, why is it only 17 years after the incestuous marriage that the truth comes out?


The ecological human being

Our house is burning and we are looking elsewhere.  This is the phrase Jacques Chirac used to open his speech at the Fourth Earth Meeting in Johannesburg in 2002. Like the characters in the Greek tragedy, the actors who could act on climate change to reverse its course also seem to be insensitive to the now unanimous calls of the scientific community, and choose, consciously or unconsciously, not to know (or at least not to act, dissociating themselves from what they deeply know about what’s happening). What, therefore, is operating at this deep level in us that leads us to turn a blind eye? Could it be the fear – and the consequent shame – of having to acknowledge that what we are actually doing is killing “Mother” Earth? Is our fantasy of omnipotence so great that we have split off from the idea that we actually need her to feed us, that we are dependent on her?

In order to get out of our blindness, rather than, as Oedipus does at the end of Sophocles' tragedy, blinding ourselves with Jocasta's buckle and consigning ourselves to exile by taking "turning a blind eye" to its extreme consequences, we can perhaps still choose to open our eyes, collectively, and help those around us to become aware. This means being able to see the links, being able, as Marinella De Simone says, to consider the dimensions of the human being as multiplicative (rather than additive) and thus collectively saying that the absence of one renders the others null and void. The new paradigm, the ecological human being, leads to the opening up and recognition of the non-negotiable links with the Earth, with future generations, up to the seventh, with the animal world, the end of reductionism, separation, fragmentation, and the creation of an “integral” human being.

PS Thanks to Matthieu Daum and the dialogues we had together on this subject, which were the third source of inspiration for this post!

Positive Stereotyping: another way of putting people into boxes

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?

Backfire effect: why debunking does not regenerate our thinking

I'm sure each and every one of you has had occasion to get carried away and enter into a politically motivated discussion. The COVID crisis we have collectively gone through has created many opportunities for polarisation: lockdowns yes or no, vaccines yes or no, chloroquine yes or no etc. The arena in which many of these discussions have taken place has been the internet, social networks in particular.

When following the threads of social discussions, it seems that by bringing evidence for one thesis or another, people become more and more entrenched in their positions, even in the presence of elements such as rigorous research, scientific models, statistical data. Presenting this evidence seems only to produce even more hardening of the parties, and a reinforcement of the original beliefs, until, often, the discussion ends in mutual insults. This is the consequence of the 'backfire effect': just as with the 'backfire' from which it takes its name, this effect produces the reinforcement of a belief, which we feel is connected to our value system and therefore generates identity for us. So there is no point in bringing in objective facts and figures, research results, scientific theories, on the contrary. The deeper we go into the discussion, the more polarized it becomes, the more the fact of finding arguments and theses to support it reinforces the original opinion. Many of these arguments may not have been explored at the beginning of the discussion, but we discover them in the course of the exchange of ideas, and they comfort us in the position we are defending.

The expression 'Backfire effect' was invented by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in 2010 to explain the results of research into the effects of deliberately disseminated false political information and the fact that, even years later, and despite denials and the dissemination of true information, some of the public could not believe that it was not true.

The American journalist David McRaney runs a remarkably interesting and in-depth website on the subject of bias,, as well as having published several books on the subject. On his blog he has published a series of podcast interviews in which the two neuroscientists Jonas Kaplan and Sarah Gimpel talk about the biology of the backfire effect. The interesting discovery made through IRM is that the area involved in this effect is the amygdala, an area that is activated when we are in the presence of physical threats. What is particularly interesting is precisely that the brain does not differentiate between the danger of the threat that comes from having to reconsider certain beliefs, which are considered crucial for the construction of our identity, and physical threats. The hypothesis of the neuroscientists is that, since the backfire effect does not have the same intensity on all subjects, it seems to have it in particular on political subjects (e.g. the presence or not of weapons in Iraq for the Americans, or Obama's religion...), on vaccines, on the defence of one's political leaders when they have committed crimes. These opinions are decisive for whether we belong to a group; we therefore become so defensive because we are afraid of losing our bond of belonging to that group, and we know that from an evolutionary point of view this is one of the situations that our brain perceives as 'high risk of survival'.

The additional information on these issues is also not absorbed in isolation, but becomes part of pre-existing networks of information and so "once you incorporate a piece of information into your worldview, changing it is not as simple as taking that little piece out; it's already embedded in the foundation of what you have, and it might be, in some cases, like you've built a house, and maybe changing the door doesn't take much effort, but if you want to change a load-bearing wall that's part of the structure of the house, you have to start calling an architect to think about how to redesign your house, and you can't just pull the piece out. "' (Jones & Kaplan 2013).

To come back to the online discussions, when we realize that for the other person (or for us) it is about such issues, we can stop bringing data, facts, research, theories, models. We are speaking a language, that of rationality and analysis, which is not suitable for communicating about a considerably basic functioning which is that of fight-or-fly, of threats to life, which is the functioning characteristic of the amygdala. Just as debunking sites are not useful, paradoxically especially when they are maintained by experts in the field, who risk being considered as elites to be defended against, especially when they mock those who think differently, which mainly serves to reinforce the ideas of those who are already convinced. The backfire effect works by reinforcing the opinions of both sides who, in defending their position, have in the meantime consolidated their neural connections around it. If the Net continues to develop in continuity with what has happened so far, the future that awaits us may not be very bright. Advertisements will be increasingly targeted according to the likes we have placed and generated based on what the algorithms have learned about us, how we vote, the beliefs we have, our values. Will the space still exist to disagree, to question, to change?

Can we free ourselves from the backfire effect and regenerate ourselves, our identity through the regeneration of our beliefs?

There are a few possibilities:

1.Simplify the explanations, taking advantage of the fact that the less effort the brain has to make to understand something new, the more likely it is to be believed. This is also why we created the card game INSIDIAE, about unconscious bias. One of our motivations was the realization that behavioral economics is particularly important and impactful in the lives of all of us, but too difficult to understand without having studied it in depth. Play allows us to get rid of our defences and makes learning possible, in an easy and fun way, without putting us in a threatening situation that could trigger the dynamic of fight-or-fly;

2.Present new information in a non-threatening way. We only have to go back to our famous comment threads on social networks to realize how violent communication styles, mocking, and devaluing the other person are dominant in discussions. Dialogue, starting with simple tools, starting with a real intention to understand, can help to open truly constructive and regenerative conversations for all parties involved. Soon to be published on this blog is our "Generative Speaking" tool;

3.When something is really far from our way of thinking rather than rejecting it immediately or comparing it with something we already know, we can breathe and make ourselves available to really enter a zone of "unknown", "sans mémoire ni désir". We can reach this state, which is not 'natural', by being aware of our thought processes and the risk of being imprisoned by our fears.

Women's leadership and second-generation gender bias

The lean in model

I was preparing a webinar on the topic of leadership and women. The talk was about a model of leadership more suitable for women, which allows to overcome the so-called "double constraint", so to get out of the dualism "take care = woman, empathetic, emotional etc, take charge = man, strong, decisive etc". I had intended, at some point, to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of Sheryl Sandberg's "lean in" model, which has the virtue of helping women think differently, but not helping systems change. So I looked up French translations of "lean in" because I wanted to be precise. And I got a surprise.  The translation used in France, is "en avant toutes"; that's also the name of the women's circles and the movement that started after the book appeared. Using the Reverso dictionary, which translates from literary and common usage, I discovered other translations, very suggestive. In particular, two struck me and I saw them somewhat as the dark side, the shadow of the lean in. One is " appauvri en " which made me think: does the woman who "leans in" have to give up something of herself? Must she accept to impose herself, to have something less, to lose a part of herself? The other translation, which struck me even more, is "Inclinez-vous", curving, bending towards the ground, making oneself oblique. And I thought of the expression "stand up", often followed by "for your rights" which is exactly the opposite of this bowing down, making oneself smaller (impoverished as in the first translation), depriving oneself of one's own stature. I thought back to Mary Beard's beautiful book, "Women and Power, a manifesto" and her analysis of how, over the centuries, the patriarchal model has contributed to the reinforcement of this idea that women who do not conform risk finding themselves with their tongues or heads cut off (Philomela in Metamorphosis, the myth of Medusa).

In fact, I really enjoyed Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean in", which also had the merit of starting a movement of women who find themselves and support each other around it. And at the same time, I happen to observe, more and more often, that the idea of "personal development" of women, not supported by a systemic development, risks only creating more unhappiness, frustration, a temporary sense of personal well-being often destined to feed a feeling of inadequacy, of not being up to the mark. As if the "fault" of the failure was the woman's, not good enough to "lean in", despite all the advice received and the training provided. Much of the work that is done with women unfortunately still starts from an idea that it is up to them to develop, to impoverish themselves (take away characteristics that do not conform), to give up parts of their identity, to try to acquire traits and characteristics that better match the traits of those who take power. It is up to them to improve their visibility, assertiveness, to fight to occupy public space, to take the floor, to count in decisions.

Perhaps after so many years of work and awareness-raising on the subject, so many courses on unconscious bias, so many leadership empowerment courses, so much coaching, it is time to think seriously about systemic change, to operate in depth, to bring out the hidden and implicit part of organizational cultures, which generates strong resistance on these issues, preventing truly "disruptive" changes. The regression we witnessed, with respect to the condition of women, at the time of COVID is only the tip of the iceberg. Therefore, perhaps it is not only women who need to work on themselves, to undertake paths of development, but a whole system of strong, sedimented, implicit power, which must be questioned and reformed, regenerated, so that things can really evolve.

Second generation gender bias

Herminia Ibarra, calls these resistances "second generation gender bias" or invisible barriers: invisible not only for those who find themselves in front of them but also for those who put them up, normally well-intentioned organizations that think they have done everything possible, having promoted training and coaching programs on unconscious bias or on women's leadership, but which have lacked a passage of collective reflection on culture. In these organizations, there may no longer be blatant discrimination, everyday sexism, but there remains "a sense of disconnection from male colleagues, advice to head for staff roles once a family is established, a feeling of exclusion from key positions" (H. Ibarra, 2013 "Women Rising: the Unseen Bareers" HBR).

What can you do concretely to break down the invisible barriers? Here are some ideas that can help


  • Clarifying the "business case". What are the performance consequences if things stay the same?
  • Work extensively on biases, fallacies, routines in processes that reproduce avoidable errors, not limiting oneself to a "one shot" nor to an individual work only
  • Look for the skills really required in a role and not the ideal and unrealistic skills (knowing that according to many researches men are self-sufficient for a position even in the absence of the required skills, while women tend not to apply when even a few of the characteristics are missing)
  • Create "safe" spaces where women can learn even when they find themselves in challenging situations. Safety can come, for example, from a collective accompaniment (and not only from individual coaching) in situations such as, for example, being the only woman in a group and in a role defined as "masculine", a situation in which mental models that generate projection of incompetence risk playing a role that, if introjected, will generate actual incompetence
  • Go in search of gender bias in evaluation systems, 360° multirater feedback, assignment of objectives....
  • Create communities in which women can engage with each other and objectify and develop collective responses to returns such as "you don't make yourself visible enough," "you need to work on your empathy" (when assertiveness is manifested), "you need to say no more often," and a whole host of signals of a leadership model that implicitly does not invite them to occupy the space
  • Rethink leadership models, get out of binary models, equip yourself with inclusive models that allow you to accommodate, within them, complexity

Dragons of Inaction: the diffusion of responsibility in teams and in macrosystems

This week we introduce the "Bias of the Week" column with an interesting article written by Giovanna Prina, Managing Partner of BB7, the company with whom we developed our INSIDIAE bias card game. Giovanna makes us think about how, within the work team, the diffusion of responsibility bias can cause drops in productivity and also gives us some ideas on how to deal with this risk.

The diffusion of responsibility bias

This bias has been studied since the 1960s and is defined in the article as follows: "This is the socio-psychological phenomenon, studied by Latané and Darley in the 1960s. The input for their study was the murder of a girl in New York. In that situation as many as 38 neighbors witnessed hearing the screams and cries for help, but no one did anything to help her during the attack. What Latané and Darley concluded is that when in an emergency there are many people who could act, everyone tends to delegate the initiative to someone else, especially when the group is large and there is no one with a recognized role to intervene". In practice, if there is no 'investiture' of responsibility (e.g. through explicit delegation), this bias means that we are unconsciously led to think that someone else is responsible. This bias has detrimental effects on small systems, decreasing their productivity, and on organizations - think, for example, of the cases of harassment and discrimination in companies that we may witness and which we do not feel sufficiently engaged in to intervene.

Another effect on an even larger scale is the non-intervention of governments, multinationals, regulatory bodies, and a whole range of other institutions on the issue of Climate Change.  In recent years there has been a lot of interesting research trying to understand the mechanisms by which, despite the imminent danger now scientifically proven and the repeated calls from scientists, actions (from politicians, business leaders, banks, etc.,) do not match the urgency of the change required. Gerdien De Vries, when analyzing climate campaigns, highlights the importance of public communication in dealing with the issue and the fact that they appear not to take sufficiently into account the cognitive biases that impact the behavior of those powerful agents.

The Dragons of Inaction

In addition to “diffuse responsibility”, the biases that act to encourage inaction on the issue include:  the Titanic effect - "we're all going to sink anyway, the end of the world is inescapable" or, on the contrary, the optimism bias - "technology, the market, something else will save us", the hyperbolic discount bias - "let's restore growth in the economy today, we'll think about tomorrow" which intervenes making us focus only on immediate benefits, the elsewhere bias – “Our country is in the mountains, rising ocean waters don't concern us", the social conformity bias - "other governments/businesses don’t act, I don't see why we should", the relevance bias - which makes us see advantages and disadvantages only when they really impact us "wind turbines are very useful but we own great oil assets". David Gifford, from Victoria University, has also found a very evocative name for these inaction biases: 'Dragons of Inaction' and proposes an interesting diagnostic tool  from his website, aimed at helping people identify their own personal dragons, although the most fearsome and powerful dragons are our collective ones.

How to deal with the situation

So what can we do then when we’re confronted to these types of situations? Just like in an airplane, when there is a loss of pressure in the cabin and the oxygen masks drop: first, start with self: what’s going on in me right now? What of those biases, of those dragons, might be flying around in my head? Then help others: checking their own assumptions, gaining insights into the thought patterns that are structuring the way they are (in)acting right now. Only when that is done, new possibilities can emerge.


To read Giovanna Prina's article >>>

Paula's principle: When Paula and Peter are mirrored

Many years ago, a series of circumstances that started with one of my husband's Eurostar journeys and a conversation he started with his train neighbour, commenting on the French elections and Sarkozy's arrival in power, passed through a beautiful summer evening in a Parisian attic, led me to meet the author of the book "Paula's Principle", PHD and then OECD executive, Tom Schuller.

Paula's Principle


Paula's Principle is based on a series of research, directed by Tom and on an insight that emerges from these research. Despite the fact that women are, on average, better prepared than men (higher motivation for lifelong learning and better results), this does not correspond to a better salary, recognition and better career opportunities, on the contrary. It is not a question here of analysing differences in access to education, which, moreover, OECD research in member countries does not show to be significant on average, but rather of seeing what the results and impacts of learning are. This means bringing out the concrete differences in the possibilities of using the skills acquired, in the workplace and seeing them recognised both through extrinsic rewards, such as money and career, but also through intrinsic rewards, such as nurturing a sense of self-realisation and fulfilment of one's potential.

This bias, which acts at the collective and individual level, starting from the patriarchal meta-model, has been called by Tom Schuller "The Paula Principle". In this name you may have recognised something familiar from the late 1960s, the famous 'Peter Principle'. Peter's principle states that 'Every worker grows to his level of incompetence'. The masculine is a must for two reasons. The first is that in the world in which Laurence J. Peter - Canadian psychologist and academic, after whom the principle is named - enunciated this paradox, women were not visible to the extent that they could be included in the thinking. Tom Schuller narrates in his book that, among the 40 cases examined by Laurence Peter, only one was a woman. The second reason is that Peter's principle works in exactly the mirror way for women, so much so that it deserves a specific name, Paula's principle: "Most women work below their level of competence". We can recognise the double bias in what has been said. On the one hand, the habit of not seeing incompetence, when carried by men, which makes the career proceed up to, precisely, the level of incompetence; on the other hand, the difficult recognition of female competence.

This bias produces at least two problems


It creates a sense of inequity and injustice, with possible repercussions on motivation and unconscious or conscious attempts to re-establish equity (producing less, distorting one's perception of oneself and others, etc., to the extreme of leaving the organisation). Second consequence, by not allowing a full emergence of talents and actualization of women's potential, it produces waste and loss of opportunities; Peter's principle, on the other hand, produces all the problems related to having unskilled men making decisions, which are explored, with much humour, in Laurence Peter's book.

Post-COVID regeneration


Right now a key theme in thinking about the reconstruction of post-COVID economies is the issue of learning; the key words of this renaissance are reskilling and upskilling, launched by the World Economic Forum in 2020. In order to introduce true post-COVID regeneration, however, a key step will be to evolve our rigidities in our perception of the world, e.g. the Paula Principle (and the Peter Principle). Systemic change is about allowing competence to really be valued, regardless of the person who brings it, without these kinds of mental traps producing blind spots and distortions in decisions.