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Hurricanes hardly ever happen

I was doing some highbrow reading over the weekend (Grazia Magazine…don’t tell anyone…) and spotted a two-liner that male-named hurricanes are taken more seriously than their female-named counterparts. 

I was so dispirited that I looked into this further. Apparently, a study conducted by the University of Illinois and published last week has discovered that hurricanes with female names kill more people because people respect them less. As Sharon Shavitt, a behavioural scientist and co-author of the paper explained, “The femininity of the name influences the degree to which people feel the storm is dangerous, and that affects how they respond to it. We had a hunch that there would be some gender biases, but we were quite stunned by the degree of this effect”. 

Rationally, of course this is clearly ridiculous. Sadly, however, it didn’t entirely surprise me, not least because it reminded me of the Heidi and Harold study which came to renewed prominence when it was mentioned by Sheryl Sandberg in her recent manifesto, Lean In. The study was conducted by Columbia Business School and New York University professors who gave students a Harvard Business School case study about a succesful entrepreneur. Half were told the entrepreneur’s name was Heidi Roizen. For the other half, Heidi was re-named Howard. The students’ response to Howard was significantly more positive, whilst Heidi was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for”. 

In my fifteen or so years as an employment lawyer, I don’t think I have ever come across a case where the discriminator recognised that discrimination was the reason for (or motivator behind) their actions, or who actively intended to discriminate.  And yet sex discrimination claims continue to flow through the tribunals and only an extreme cynic (or misogynist) would argue that all these cases are purely a figment of the claimants’ imaginations. Some of these undoubtedly result from old-fashioned prejudice and ingrained behaviours, but in other cases, there may be more subtle factors at play.

Subconscious bias would appear therefore to be alive and kicking, both at work and in the hurricane belt. How best to tackle it?  Sadly, I don’t purport to have the solution. But I do think that acknowleging the prejudices to which we are all susceptible is an important step in the right direction. So next time you are rolling out some equal opportunities training within your organisation, be sure to cover off this depressing but fascinating angle. And if you have a spare moment, I would recommend having a go at the Implicit Association Test originally created by Anthony Greenwald, Debbie McGee and Jordan Schwartz which can be found here

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