You have to be living on the moon not to know the story of George Floyd and not be affected by the problem of racism or hear the message that 'Black Lives Matter'. It is an intense topic of debate in our household, a conversation in which you cannot escape the feeling that you might be part of the problem. It is the easiest thing in the world to wax lyrical about racism on a blog. Words have power, but in this case, actions speak louder than words. I believe in changing the world by telling one positive story at a time. Stories about how positive action can have a real impact and change lives. So I thought I might share a true story from my own experience.
So I am going to share a story. This story involves someone I am still in touch with and who I know reads my blogs. I will not embarrass them by naming them. However, I know that they will not mind me sharing this story if it helps others who find themselves in a similar situation, or if it helps leaders examine their own actions and take positive action.
A number of years ago, I was running a large consultancy business in Aberdeen. I travelled down to Edinburgh to give a lecture to the Oil and Gas Institute. As is usual with these events we adjourned to the local bar afterwards. While in the bar, a young student approached me looking for an opportunity. He was from another part of the world and had come to Edinburgh to study for an M.Sc. in Petroleum Engineering. As part of the M.Sc., you need to complete an extended project and write a dissertation. Most students try and secure a placement with a company to do the project work, and it is something that companies usually support. Getting a company-sponsored project gives you a much better chance of finding a job after you complete your degree. However, he was struggling to find an opportunity. Most companies he had contacted had either quickly rejected his application or not even bothered replying. Given his background, it was not hard to imagine why he might be finding it difficult, but one hoped that companies anti-discriminatory policies would promote equal-opportunity. You can only speculate on the reasons for so many rejections.
He then told me a quite incredible story. He spent years working for a large shipping company, working his way through the company to the role of chief engineer. Anyone who knows anything about shipping will realise that a large number of the crew on ships are from poorer nations in the such as the Philippines, Indonesia or the Indian sub-continent. The people hired by shipping companies spend months if not years away from home, for relatively low wages (by western standards). Most of the money (if not all of their money) they earn goes back home to support their families. He had spent years working as an engineer on cargo ships saving enough money to follow his dream to become a Petroleum Engineer. He had taken his life savings and invested them in one year to complete an M.Sc. in Petroleum Engineering in Edinburgh. Without a project, this may have been an investment wasted. After a year in Edinburgh studying, most of his savings would have been spent.
After hearing his story, I offered him a project with the consultancy company I was working for. Not because I was feeling particularly charitable. The reason I took him on was with his story, I believed he would bring an attitude to work and life that could only add value to my organisation. He did such a good job of his M.Sc. project that we ended up hiring him after he graduated with a Distinction in Petroleum Engineering. I also have to commend my colleagues at the time who coached and mentored him, provided support for his studies and project and treated him as an equal. He now works for an international oil and gas company as a petroleum engineer, and one day I hope to see him in a senior leadership role. He is a far better engineer than I have ever been, and given his experiences, he will probably make a far better leader than I will ever be.
Still to this day, I worry about why he was finding it so difficult to find an opportunity. The truth is it probably happened because we all carry stereotypes around in our heads and stereotyping can lead to discrimination and at worse racism. To avoid racism we first have to admit that we all stereotype, it is just the way the brain works. We stereotype all sorts of people: People from the North of England; Scottish Culture; Australians; People from poor housing estates; People with beards and top-knots. Our whole popular culture is built on a pastiche of stereotypes.
Why we stereotype is partly explained by the way our brain works. There are two types of thinking 'Fast Thinking and 'Slow Thinking'. The phrase fast and slow thinking was coined by Daniel Kahneman in his book 'Thinking Fast and Slow'
To quote directly from the Wikipedia entry:
The central thesis is a dichotomy between two modes of thought: "System 1" is fast, instinctive and emotional; "System 2" is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The book delineates cognitive biases associated with each type of thinking, starting with Kahneman's own research on loss aversion. From framing choices to people's tendency to replace a difficult question with one which is easy to answer, the book highlights several decades of academic research to suggest that people place too much confidence in human judgement.
Fast thinking is genetic predeposition and a hangover from when we were hunter-gatherers in a harsh world where things were generally out to kill you. If you see a bush shaking and you do not know what is in it, is to best to assume it is food, or assume it is a lion? Fast thinking says Lion'. Beware! We are genetically programmed to make assumptions from sparse and incomplete information.
Our pre-deposition to fast thinking is both a lifesaver, but it also means that we have a tendency to make snap judgements. Fast thinking is why we stereotype.
If we want to beat discrimination that we have to recognise that we all stereotype. It is what we do with a stereotype that makes a difference. Being self-aware of our own stereotypes means we have a chance of creating fairer and more equitable world. Ask yourself these questions: How many times have you made snap judgement because someone's accent, the way they look, how they dress, How many times have you passed over a CV simply because of their name, their origin or the because of the school the went to. I know I have done all of these things. It is what I choose to do with the knowledge that I am biased and acknowledge my own failings that prevent me from becoming a racist. I am only a small step away from discriminatory behaviour. I have to be vigilant to my own attitudes.
I cannot pretend to know what it is like to black and experience extreme racism. To do so would be patronizing. However, I do know that if you come from the right school or right university you have better life chance; If your parents are well connected, you will be offered more opportunities; If you are white and male you have a better chance of reaching the board room in the UK; If you have a higher degree you almost certainly earn a lot more money than someone who does not; If you work in certain industries you will be paid disproportionately more than people who add just as much value to society doing other jobs.
The only thing I can do is to try and change the world through action and telling one positive story at a time. I can encourage people to move from fast thinking to slow thinking in my work as a decision analyst.