On appearance and bias: thoughts from the Nerd Girls panel at Lotusphere 2011

Colander

One of the topics of great interest during the Nerd Girls panel at Lotusphere 2011 was that of appearance. How important is grooming? What about first impressions?

People shared the usual advice: Dress appropriately. Be yourself. Neatness counts.

Like the way I skip fluffy guest posts full of cliches, I try to avoid sharing the same thoughts you’ll find everywhere else. So I found myself thinking about one of the points raised, which you don’t encounter that often.

One of the participants had observed that “booth babes” at a tech convention can drive people away. My take-away from that is that *you should make sure that what you communicate with your appearance supports what you want to communicate.* Too much attention to appearance can conflict with your goals. You can dress to blend in or you can dress to stand out. Suits help you build rapport with people who are more comfortable with suits. Jeans and a geek T-shirt help you build more rapport with people who are more comfortable in jeans and T-shirts.

Tweaking convention can support your goals, too. I’ve turned up at technical get-togethers in brightly-coloured ethnic clothing to make several points along the way: a. it’s okay to bring personal interests into the tech world, b. it’s okay to be a girl, c. there are people here from different cultures, and d. it’s good to have fun. That this made me easier to spot in a crowd was an excellent bonus, and it worked really well.

Know what you want to say, and make sure your appearance supports it. Re-think what you want to say, too. For example, if the path towards becoming an executive requires expensive suits and other status symbols, it might not be for a person who disagrees with dry-cleaning, at least until people create better washable suits. (Or you can pick a different uniform: black mock turtlenecks and jeans totally works for Steve Jobs.)

I dress for minimal thought during most days, for either blending in or standing out during get-togethers, and for practicality when travelling. Slacks, blouse, sweater/blazer, and scarf give me a good uniform for the workweek. If I’m speaking at a conference, I might dig out my cream suit. If I’m attending a crowded event, I might wear a red top or bring a hat. If I’m travelling, I pack my Tilley’s Endurables businesswear: hand-washable slacks, blazers, and blouses that will dry overnight in a pinch. I wear flat shoes for comfort and boots for warmth. These routines mean that I need to spend very little time thinking about what to wear.

There’s a limit to how much time, money, and energy I want to spend on appearance. I’m not going to spend on make-up, cosmetic surgery, or designer items. I suppose going to a dermatologist or having frequent facials could help my face clear up, but it’s no big deal. I won’t experiment with body ink, piercings, or hair colour. The gradual onset of gray hair won’t be dyed away, and the wrinkles will be welcomed. (I do invest energy into making sure I get the kind of wrinkles I want: more smile lines than frowns! =) ) This is partly because I have other priorities, and partly because I want to help build a society where these things matter less, where we don’t shame people for appearance or age or lifestyle choice.

Thinking about this further, I realized that I’m not really interested in the conventional approach to thinking about appearance. This topic usually focuses on: “How can I get other people to think better of me? How can I increase my chances for a raise or a promotion? How can I project more status and confidence?”

For that part, my questions are more along the lines of “How can I stay true to my values? Are my goals in line with those values and priorities?” And there’s another, much more interesting question for me: *”How can I correct my biases?”*

Our biases around attractiveness reduce the quality of our decisions. People get dinged for being too fat, being too old, being too plain, and even being too attractive. Women are more harshly judged than men, and are the target of much body-policing from advertising, media, coworkers, friends, and even themselves.

I’ve received plenty of privileges. I’m young, female, enthusiastic, and easy to get along with, and that has almost certainly helped me do what I do. I have plenty of mentors while other people (perhaps less cheerful, perhaps less “cute”) It sometimes works to my disadvantage. There are areas of consulting that I probably won’t focus on until I have more gravitas, if ever.

I also carry biases. There’s that preference for people who are cheerful; people with symmetric, angular features; people who are trim; people who carry themselves with confidence. I work against these preferences, pull my attention away from that so that I can focus on other factors, try to separate seeing from thinking. (I indulge this bias with my husband, though, whom I think is very handsome, and with whom I have the license to look at as much as I’d like; but I always make it clear that I love him for much greater reasons.)

Likewise, there’s dealing with that reactive judging of people who frown a lot, people with weaker postures, people who are overweight, people who dress inappropriately… I work to separate negative perceptions and reality so that I can make better decisions. There’s ableism, sexism, ageism, racism, and a million unnamed stories we tell ourselves without examining them closely.

You can eliminate the visual aspect through teleconferences, but that doesn’t solve the problem. We joke about everything sounding smarter when said in a British accent, but accent stereotypes do influence judgment. I’m glad that accents are getting more mixed up now, what with people mixing cultures and people getting cross-trained in different accents. It helps challenge that bias. Then there’s confidence and pitch and vocabulary and fluency…

Paying attention to and adjusting for all these biases is partly why I like the move towards virtual connections, particularly during the beginning. If I can’t see or hear people, I can more easily focus on what they say. However, the Internet replaces one set of biases with another. Instead of being influenced by appearance, I’m biased by how articulate someone is – and that’s tangled up in class and education and culture and the availability of leisure time and the ability of people to access this technology.

It isn’t easy to separate all these factors, and I may never be able to do it completely. There’s a bit of shame in it too, when I realize how many of society’s messages I’ve internalized into these quick impressions of other people.

I want to make better decisions. I want to be able to see the best in people, unclouded by the preconceptions I carry. I might never be able to eliminate my biases, but I can recognize them and slow down when they might be in play. If I slow down and understand, for example, how my first impressions colour my decisions, then I can clarify my reasons and reject invalid ones.

You’ll find plenty of books about how to groom yourself for particular kinds of success. Wouldn’t it be interesting to build a society where this matters less?

Colander photo (c) 2010 Ben Hosking – Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

2011-02-05 Sat 08:40