Welcome to my weekly Q&A roundup. (Scroll down to find the Q&A.)
If this is your first time here, welcome. I spend a fair amount of time speaking at events and conferences. At the end of my presentations, I leave space for audience members to ask questions—tough questions, brave questions, you name it. The level of candor and curiosity always inspires me, and I want to share that sentiment with you. So each week, I pick one question that I believe others would find most instructive and publish my response to it here.
The purpose of this weekly tradition is transparency and inclusivity.
Transparency: a behind-the-scenes look at my day-to-day.
Inclusivity: bringing others along in the journey.
What To Do About The Dude Wall
I’m on my company’s D&I task force and we’re currently auditing our culture and systems for bias. Part of the auditing process involves conducting interviews with employees. One of the issues that came up during two interviews was how our company’s “dude wall” undercuts diversity and inclusion. I understand where these employees are coming from, but how do we address the dude wall without erasing history?
For those of you not familiar with the term, the “Dude Wall” is what happens when organizations hang portraits of their previous and current leaders in high-visibility corridors.
Rachel Maddow coined the term in 2015 when she was at Rockefeller University to present Dr. Helen Hobbs with an award for her work in genetics. There, Maddow noticed all the portraits hanging on the walls of the auditorium represented only one gender: men. Hence came the term Dude Wall.
The Dude Wall puts a name to the once-overlooked decor of lecture halls, lobbies, and offices across the country. For organizations journeying toward diversity, equity, and inclusion, this wall can become problematic.
Let’s look at why that is.
Why Does The Dude Wall Matter?
The Dude Wall matters because pattern matching matters. Think about your brain. It can process up to 11 million pieces of information per second. To process all that information, the brain relies on many cognitive tools (i.e. heuristics and biases).
One cognitive tool involves the use of pattern recognition, which occurs when your brain matches incoming information with the information you already have stored.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you likely have the following information stored in your brain:
1. Most political leaders are men
46 of the past 46 US presidents are or were men
89% of countries are currently led by men
98% of legislatures worldwide are majority male
2. Most business leaders are men
97% of Fortune Global 500 CEOs are men (and 100% White)
77% of executives worldwide are men
80% of board seats worldwide are held by men
3. Most prestigious prize winners are men
Every time one of your colleagues walks past the Dude Wall, it reinforces the notion of men (specifically White men) leading. Whereas other genders, races, and ethnicities follow.
This notion—the pattern of White male leadership—becomes the standard for your brain.
“This institution was never meant for me”
In addition to reinforcing historic inequities, students from the Yale School of Medicine found Dude Walls have the following impact:
They signal institutional values such as whiteness, elitism, maleness, and power
They engineer feelings of apathy and cynicism toward organizational culture
They underscore a lack of belonging—e.g. “This institution was never meant for me”
They misrepresent history by erasing the contributions of non-White males (or risk misrepresenting history if they were to be taken down)
What Should You Do About Your Company’s Dude Wall?
The Dude Wall is one of those “proceed with caution” topics. There’s no obvious right or wrong answer. However, knowing how pattern recognition works and placing it in the context of workplace DEI, you have a framework to address this issue with your diversity and inclusion task force.
You also have options. You could:
Move the Dude Wall portraits to a less-trafficked location.
Add portraits of underrepresented contributors to the wall.
Keep only the current leader’s portrait on the wall and fill the rest of the space with more inclusive decor.
Whatever you end up doing, remember that half of all diverse employees report seeing bias as part of their day-to-day work experience. The Dude Wall may very well contribute to this experience.
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© 2021 Katica Roy™, Inc.