Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Smooth landings

    The steep angle required to land a plane at the San Diego, Calif., airport makes a hard thump and screaming brakes practically standard operating procedure.
    A recent touchdown was so smooth that the flight attendant announcement was the first indication a landing had even taken place. A passenger who wanted to congratulate the pilot was slightly taken aback to discover the captain was a woman.
    The shock was not that women are now airline captains. Women commonly work in fields that seemed impossible a generation ago—lawyers, U.S. Supreme Court justices, physicians, firefighters, members of the president’s cabinet, and possibly the next president of the United States. The shock is that male is still the default mental image for these roles.
    Harvard recently concluded a two-year pilot program to address the fact that although women consistently do as well as men on written exams in the Masters of Business Administration program, their class standings fall in more subjective measurements such as class participation.
    Women were encouraged to be more assertive in class and to choose to specialize in finance over marketing. New technology helped professors eliminate bias in teaching and grading. The efforts worked and women became more visible at the top of the class.
    Ironically, one of the most insidious issues uncovered was the motivation of some of these highly competent, highly trained women to seek an MRS degree as well as an MBA while at Harvard. Are we in the 1950s?
    In reality, stereotypes die hard.
    We pass all the right laws but reality doesn’t necessarily change. Studies consistently and conclusively prove that whether stereotypes involve gender, race, class, or something else, we humans see what we expect to see.
    If we believe Hispanics to be less ambitious than Anglos, we see Hispanic workers leaving work earlier than others, whether they do or not. If we believe rural residents are less modern than urbane city dwellers, we see Iowans as uninterested in computers, even though Iowa is one of the most wired states in the country.
    Fortunately, stereotypes are hard to kill but not impossible. Polls consistently show that attitudes are changing, especially among Millennials. Born in the 1980s and ’90s and having gone to school in diverse classrooms, these young adults are far more accepting of those of a different race, gender or sexual orientation than past generations. They are moving into the workforce, and eventually into leadership positions in larger numbers than any in history.
    This gives hope that there will be more smooth landings in all our futures.

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