Ep. 601 – How Bias Can Frame Your World View with Jessica Nordell, Author and Speaker

Our guest today is Jessica Nordell, Author and Speaker. In 2021 she published The End of Bias: A Beginning: The Science and Practice of Overcoming Unconscious Bias. 

Jessica has served as a teacher and journalist. She studied Physics at MIT, and holds a degree in physics from Harvard and an MFA in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 

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Jamin Brazil: Hey everyone. You’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. I’m Jamin Brazil your host. Our guest today is Jessica Nordell, Author and Speaker. In 2001, she published The End of Bias: A Beginning. That will be the topic for today’s episode. Jessica has served as a teacher and journalist. She studied physics at MIT and holds a degree in physics from Harvard and an MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Jessica, welcome to the Happy Market Research Podcast.


Jessica Nordell: Thank you so much for having me.


Jamin Brazil: HubUX is a research operations platform for private panel management, qualitative automation including video audition questions and surveys. For a limited time user seats are free. If you’d like to learn more or create your own account visit hubux.com. It is an honor to have you. I’m really excited about jumping into the topic of your book but before we do, I like to provide a little bit of context. Please tell us about your parents, specifically what they did and how that informs what you do today?


Jessica Nordell: That’s such an interesting question. I think it was more- I’ll tell you what my parents did. I think it was actually more kind of their approach to life that really influenced what I did with my own career. My dad is a retired physician. My mom was a counselor before my sister and I were born. Then after we were born, she stepped back from that role and shifted her attention to researching the stock market. She became kind of an auto didact with investments and kind of understanding companies and how to make sense of companies stock performances. That became her kind of main activity as we were growing up. I think it was really my parents kind of spirit of curiosity that really influenced my choices in my career. There was always this kind of attitude in my house that if you didn’t know something, you should go find out the answer. We have a world book encyclopedia and whenever my sister and I had a question about something in the world, my parents would say, why don’t you go look it up. I think that really fostered my spirit of curiosity and of just like trying to seek out answers all the time. Which then became my career really as a journalist. That’s what we do. We try to uncover what’s really going on and try to understand a particular issue from all angles.


Jamin Brazil: What year did your mom make the career shift to stock analysis?


Jessica Nordell: I think it would have been sort of the early 80’s.


Jamin Brazil: This is pre-E trade by a long shot?


Jessica Nordell: Yes. Yes. She would go to the library in downtown Green Bay where I grew up. Green Bay, Wisconsin. Look at Morningstar reports, like thick books of stock reports and kind of pour over them and study them. Yes. It was before- yes before things became a lot simpler via the internet.


Jamin Brazil: Maybe even more complex in the same breath. For me, it brings back this memory of my late grandfather. He and I on Saturday- Sunday excuse me. Sunday mornings we would look at the paper and track specific stocks using graph paper. You could see the historical framework.


Jessica Nordell: Really.


Jamin Brazil: Yes. Over time and we have literally still I have journals upon journals of stocks that we would track. Some as hobbyist and some as actual investments. Which is kind of interesting. There was like a vicereines that you connected to the companies back in those days. That I think in a lot of ways the digitalization of that process has sort of has really removed that. Or maybe it’s just me being a little bit nostalgic.


Jessica Nordell: Yes.


Jamin Brazil: One of the things that is interesting that I resonate with is the fact that your parents in a lot of ways it sounds like they taught you that you can. There was an enablement or even the right to learn and figure out that is one of the things that foundationally enable you to be successful journalist speaker and author.


Jessica Nordell: I think so. I think- I hadn’t actually thought about it before. As we’re talking about this I probably the fact that my mom just kind of independently just developed this kind of career with just completely self-taught. Studying the stocks and kind of understanding how investments work. Also, I think gave me sense that if you’re interested in something and you’re motivated, there’s nothing stopping you from pursuing it. From learning more. From kind of going in a particular direction. I think it also kind of taught me to not take no for an answer. Many times over the course of researching this book I ran into some kind of big obstacle or some problem that hadn’t been answered. A question that hadn’t been answered or a problem that hadn’t been solved. I think I just I don’t know just constitutionally I’m kind of undeterred by that. Then I’m like, OK. Then I just have to figure out another approach to this unsolvable problem.


Jamin Brazil: I love that. There was a lot of problem solving in those days. Not that there isn’t today but we were very much limited to volumes as opposed to digital access. To almost everything. In some ways, I think the topic of bias is very interesting. Certainly there was bias that was contained in whether it’s the encyclopedia or other things that we would have considered to be more like Cannon or more truth in at least from my experience. If it was in the encyclopedia then that was just the truth of it, right? That was the last, that was the final word.


Jessica Nordell: Right.


Jamin Brazil: Whereas now, we have such a volume of points of view on various things that on everything. That you can really see how in more of a visceral connection of how bias can frame your world view.


Jessica Nordell: Absolutely. Yes. I think we have such a much deeper understanding or there’s a much more of a broad cultural understanding that a person’s particular perspective and life experience and vantage point are going to influence how they- what subjects they think are important. How they think about those. What questions they ask? Where their blind spots are. Absolutely, all of those things were embedded in the world like encyclopedia in the 1980s. In a way that I wasn’t aware of at the time growing up.


Jamin Brazil: Yes. For sure. You wrote a book. Very successfully received, which is fantastic, The End of Bias. It was actually named a best book of the year by the World Economic Forum. AARP, Greater Good and Ink, that’s a pretty remarkable endorsements. Congratulations. In The End of Bias, in the actual book you argue that bias is pervasive in our society. That’s really interesting. Fundamentally for me. That means that pervasive is quite literally in everything that we do. It is in fact a major barrier to achieving true equality. You also explain how bias is perpetuated by institutions from education to employment. You discuss how bias can manifest in both subtle and obviously overt ways. There’s kind of like stopping at that particular point for me, it’s important as I started doing a lot of work in the last five years. I’m embarrassed to say, in my early 50’s. I just turned 52. That I waited so long in my career to recognize that this is such an important point. I’ve never been more aware of the amount of bias that has shaped who’s important and who’s not. Who has rights and who doesn’t. Probably one of my favorite little micro examples of that is, the color of band aids. How like there’s just- it doesn’t fit for me. That’s a wellness framework, right? It’s the thing that you use when you get a boo boo as a kid, feel better. Just being able to kind of start pulling the scales away from our eyes, sorry about the metaphor. We start to see a little bit more clearly, not that I figured all this out yet. This is something that is a really important work. Anyway. You go on and you talk about, or the book I should say. It offers solutions. Which I was very appreciative of. Of how these biases they can be specifically addressed including increasing diversity in educational intuitions. Of course, providing opportunities for marginalized communities and creating transparent and accountable systems. That is a big win. The last part that I want to highlight in the book, I hope I’m not sounding too much like an infomercial. Everybody that’s listening should right now go buy the book. You can find a link in the show notes or you can also find it on Amazon of course. Also, audio version which I prefer. Is available to you as well. Anyway. The last part is it emphasizes the importance of creating an inclusive environment. It recognizes that all individuals deserve respect and equal access to resources. Ultimately, the book argues that The End of Bias is possible. There is this like shining star, north star for us to be able to work with. All of that is my book report. What is the problem? I know it’s a little bit of an obtuse question. What do you see, it’s a primary problem that the book addresses. Why is it so urgent today?


Jessica Nordell: I think it would be hard to find an area of human experience that isn’t touched by some kind of bias in some way. I think that that applies to all of us no matter what our background is. We both experience it on the receiving end. We are subject to other people’s expectations about us and assumptions about us. Maybe unexamined beliefs about us based on different categories that we belong to. Then we in turn do this to others. We have unexamined expectations and assumptions about others that really color our interactions and our behavior toward other people. The reason that this is so important is that it systematically changes the opportunities that are available to people. If I- if you and I are interacting and I make assumptions about you based on some categories that you belong to that I’ve learned about in my culture. Then I’m not really interacting with you. I’m interacting with like a hallucination about you. Or a daydream about you, instead of you. It also really prevents bias unexamined bias or unconscious bias really prevents us from engaging with reality. Engaging with the truth that’s in front of us. The effects of this are so huge in healthcare. You pointed out band aids. There are really extreme examples of the ways that unconscious and unexamined bias in healthcare affects patients of color. Affects women. Affects so many different groups. Heavier weight people. We see- there’s studies that show that doctors interact with people differently depending on what groups they belong to. This can have really serious health consequences. That’s just one area. There’s education, criminal justice, policing, the workplace. There’s so many different areas where unexamined and unconscious bias are present. I just feel really passionately that this is a human issue that we all need to work together to tackle.


Jamin Brazil: Does it point to more of homogenous culture ultimately? What I mean by that is, part of the solution trying to look the part. I’ll give you a personal example. I had a family member who was critically ill and we were making some really important decisions. It was like sleepless night and a lot of time in the hospital. I was very intentional of my appearance of like trying to not look like I felt. Not dressing up in a three piece suit but at the same time, the reason I was doing that is I was trying to make sure that the staff was going to be treating me a certain way. It was just a tactic, right? Tactic incidentally actually worked. Often times I would get mistaken for somebody that worked there. There’s the knowledge part of it but then as you start framing out the other side of it. Does it go both ways?


Jessica Nordell: When you say, does it go both ways? Are you saying is it possible to kind of manipulate others biases for ones’ benefit?


Jamin Brazil: That’s what I mean. Yes, exactly.


Jessica Nordell: It certainly is. I think people do it all the time. I think what you’re describing is a tactic that is very common. I think I certainly heard that growing up as well. Dress up when you’re trying to make a case at the airport gate. You need your flight changed and you want them to treat you differently. Dress up. Absolutely. As you found, it works. There was something in the mind of those hospital staff members that saw you and it sounds like, decided to maybe give you the benefit of the doubt. Or maybe go a little bit of an extra mile for you because they put you in a particular category.


Jamin Brazil: Yes. Right. The category in this case that persona I was trying to create was one of I’m important.


Jessica Nordell: Yes.


Jamin Brazil: It sounds silly but that’s quite literally just the jist of it. Therefore, you should treat me a little bit different. I wasn’t by the way, I’m not a donor to the hospital in no way. It was just a manipulation tactic I guess. I didn’t thought of it exactly like that but that’s exactly what the outcome is.


Jessica Nordell: Yes.


Jamin Brazil: This is a big problem. It’s a pervasive problem. Why now?


Jessica Nordell: Oh my gosh. I started working on this project in early 2016. I’ve been writing about the subject of bias and discrimination for many years leading up to that. My interest in the subject really came out of my own experiences in the workplace. As a woman experiencing things like having my work doubted. When my males colleague work was celebrated or having to prove myself over and over when a male colleague was given sort of the benefit of the doubt immediately. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Then lots of things happened. Cheryl Samberg published Lean In. Which is sort of made this case that it’s important for woman to sit at the table and step up. Then there were studies that found that that message actually causes people to blame women more for their challenges in the workplace. There were a lot of kind of different cultural currents happening. Of course, over the last several years my goodness I was writing the book in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019. When I was finishing it actually was Summer of 2020 when George Floyd was murdered. There was kind of a global reckoning with some of these issues. It feels very timely.


Jamin Brazil: Yes. A 100 percent on the timeliness of it. I’m old enough to remember different tragedies that have happened like even in the 80’s with the Rodney King. I think that now the media has framed so much in favor of the general population as opposed to just specific outlets. Outlets still have a lot of power. There are an individual voices also carry a lot of weight because they’re algorithm based. Definitely, we’re seeing a lot more viscerally able to connect to injustice in a way that we just simply just didn’t have access before. We were reliant on a media to be able to carry those messages to us. That has a lot of negativity or firewalls I should say of actually delivering against the empowerment framework. That I have a friend who I actually met as that he was a guest on the podcast. I did a two part series with him on this particular topic. He is a 100 percent Native American. He’s also very successful Silicon Valley CEO. Aaron is his name. He said that it’s so pervasive in the funding frameworks. The economic frameworks that you just wouldn’t- you can’t even believe it. The reason why is it creates a shortcut for investors.


Jessica Nordell: Yes.


Jamin Brazil: There’s this any confidence that if you are a white male and you went to Harvard and got your MBA, then the other white male who also went to Harvard and probably knows some of your professors. He’s probably ten years older than you. He understands you in a way where he think it like increases his chances of success. As opposed to somebody who might not look like them or come from a different socioeconomic framework or different education. Then there’s this much larger unknown in which case now the bet is really being made more on the business frameworks. Which is not often times the central thesis for the investor.


Jessica Nordell: Right. Even though maybe it should be more often. I think if we look at Sam Banksman Freed for instance. Kind of the benefit of the- the just sort of the repeated benefit of the doubt he was giving. He was given by investors. Then we try to imagine Samantha Banksman Freed. Or Sam Banksman Freed who was African American been given that same benefit of the doubt. It’s almost comically impossible to imagine. Someone kind of in a baggy t-shirt and baggy jeans playing video games while pitching investors. It’s impossible to imagine someone who fits a different model being successful at that.


Jamin Brazil: Yes. For sure. Society creates this natural like shorthand for how we interact with each other based on these personas. As you’ve correctly identified it’s all manufactured. It’s all I forget the word you used. Hologram or something. It’s not actually real representative but individual.


Jessica Nordell: Right. We’re sort of interacting with a hallucination that’s based on inherited cultural information.


Jamin Brazil: With that framework and the way that you wrote the book, I’m really curious who’s the target reader?


Jessica Nordell: I undertook this project because I wanted to understand what we do about this problem. I’ve been writing about the problem of bias for a long time. As journalist we focus on problems. Journalists tend to not focus on solutions. We tend to uncover bad things that are happening. Then try to expose them to as many people as possible. Expose what’s going on. I had this kind of burning question which was like what do we do about the problem? Like what actually reduces the impact of gender bias and racial bias and bias on the base of weight and religion and ability and all of these different categories. I couldn’t find an answer to this question. I couldn’t really find the book that I thought should exist. I wrote the book to answer this question that I was desperately curious about. I see that the ideal reader as someone who also cares about bias and discrimination. Is curious about what could be done differently in their own lives. In their own communities and their own neighborhoods. I think another ideal reader is someone who works as part of an organization or a business or an institution that is looking to improve. In terms of becoming more fair and more just and more inclusive. The book provides a lot of different stories and tools and science behind what actually kind of moves the needle to make organizations more fair. I think it’s really anyone who cares about these issues and kind of wants to take the next step. Beyond just acknowledging the problem. Take the next step toward action. Toward doing something positive.


Jamin Brazil: It is interesting like I don’t know if you follow Saturday Night Live at all or various comedians. This topic is one that has been coming up a lot. It’s something that we’re definitely feeling what’s appropriate. What’s not appropriate. Even frameworks of how I should refer to different ethnicities. By I mean like the capital I. The all of us I. Our overall uncomfortableness of potentially being fearful of offending people unintentionally. Like recognizing I have biases but how do I successfully navigate a conversation with somebody I actually want to navigate it with. Or may even care about deeply where I’m not perceived as offensive.


Jessica Nordell: Right. Irony. Like the sort of tragic irony is that often when people are extremely worried about appearing biased, appearing prejudice. They actually behave in ways that make them seem more biased.


Jamin Brazil: Right.


Jessica Nordell: Being kind of stiff and uncomfortable. Or being unable to kind of carry on a flued conversation. These come from sometimes a fear of saying the wrong thing or offending someone. In fact, sometimes come across in a way that actually seems more offensive. I think that one thing that I really absorbed over the course of working on this project was that we are all inevitably going to screw up and say the wrong thing. I think what actually more important than just never screwing up is what happens after we screw up. Often, people are so mortified by saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing that they will retreat. That they’ll say, you know what, I can’t even engage with this subject anymore. It’s too embarrassing. It’s too I feel too ashamed. I feel too guilty about my inability to handle this correctly. They’ll kind of withdraw. I would encourage people to actually take that moment of that screw up moment of where, oh god I can’t believe I just said the wrong thing. What am I going to do? Take that moment actually as a huge opportunity to repair a relationship. To repair a dynamic- a connection with another person and learn something more about the other person. Learn something more about oneself. Actually use that as a springboard for a better encounter next time.


Jamin Brazil: I love that. I think that is a really nice and powerful way to- that we can start leveraging it. I’m hoping for one more practical tip in the book that we can take away and apply to our lives?


Jessica Nordell: Yes. Absolutely. Let’s see which would be one that I feel like could be most practical. One approach that is a really powerful tool for reducing stereotyping is a particular way of interacting with people who are from a group that one is not part of. Basically, what the research has shown is that if you connect with someone from a different group and you have equal status. You collaborate on a project together where you have a shared goal. That starts to decrease each groups stereotyping of the other. Decrease bias and promote things like friendship across differences. One like super practical kind of tactical thing that I- that people can do if they’re interested in starting to break down some boundaries or some differences. Look for opportunities to actually collaborate with people who belong to a group that you don’t belong to. Have a shared goal. Where you’re working together collaboratively. This really starts to break down stereotyping and starts to allow us to see one another more clearly. Instead of seeing each other as these kind of hallucinations or day dream that we so often do.


Jamin Brazil: That’s super helpful. I want to talk a little bit about what you’re doing right now. You’ve published a book. It’s a very important book. It’s addressing probably one of the most important issues in North America at the moment. Maybe even globally. Certainly in America. Are you speaking? How are you spending your time?


Jessica Nordell: Yes. I’m continuing to- I’m speaking a lot about the book. I travel to organizations and companies and conferences and do a lot of public speaking about this subject. That is actually something that I was kind of thrilled to find. People were really interested in after the book came out. I didn’t exactly know. You never know when you publish a book how it’s going to be received. I was very happy to know that people were really interested and wanted to hear more. I’m doing a lot of speaking. I’m also publishing a newsletter called Who We Are to Each Other where I interview people and kind of continue this conversation about how we interact with one another in more humane ways. I am starting the research for my next book.


Jamin Brazil: Exciting. I can’t wait. I have one last question.


Jessica Nordell: Yes.


Jamin Brazil: What is your personal motto?


Jessica Nordell: I think if I had to choose a personal motto it would be there’s more to the story and try to find out what it is.


Jamin Brazil: Our guest today has been Jessica Nordell. Author and Speaker. Most recently, released The End of Bias: A Beginning. You can find it on Amazon and Amazon audio. You must listen to this book. Jessica, it’s has been a pleasure having you on The Happy Market Research Podcast. Thanks for joining us.


Jessica Nordell: Thank you so much.


Jamin Brazil: Everyone else, I hope you have a great rest of your day.