bias


Recently I was at a formal wedding reception in a private club. Nobody in the room was circulating, we were all seated according to a strict plan, listening to speeches. In the gap between toasts a man walked up to our table and started talking very intensely to my husband, who listened politely, but with a bemused expression. It was not the moment to mingle.

After a minute it became clear that the fellow looming over us was an angel investor. Someone had pointed toward our table and told him that he should meet the startup CEO who sold their last company to Facebook. Mr. Investor raced over, wasting not one second on small details like the identity of the CEO.

Surveying the table of twenty people, he had decided on instinct that the tall guy with Joe 90 spectacles was the target. His pitch was swift and succinct, he hit all the relevant points, and was in the middle of the traditional exchange of business cards before my husband could say anything. When he could get in a word, aforementioned husband (who, while exceptionally talented, does not have the stomach for startups) pointed at me and said “Uh yeah… I think you want to talk to her.”

The man in the gray suit was visibly startled. The hand holding out the business card twitched, and he looked down at me, flummoxed. I raised my eyebrows and waited. He put his card back in his pocket, mumbled something inaudible, and walked away.

It was classic, like a low budget comedy from the 80’s, or a Rowan Atkinson cameo come to life. I turned to my husband and said “Did that just happen?” He shrugged, and we went back to watching the wedding speeches.

Another guest at the table overheard the exchange and sought me out later. He’s an executive at a major US company and was incensed over the implication that Mr. Investor dismissed me solely based on gender. I laughed, and said “I like it when people reveal bias. It is so much more… efficient.”

Perhaps the man reacted to my gender – there is no way to know. It could have been a hundred other cultural markers, or none at all. I’m not especially sensitive to this kind of thing: I worked my way out of poverty through hard graft. There are very few insults I have not endured, and there isn’t much in the way of human behavior that surprises me. Some of the injuries I’ve sustained along the way were intentional, but most were inadvertent.

Everyone grapples with the chaos of their own lives. It is easy to make mistakes, or get angry and lash out. Sure there are tricksters and provocateurs trying to cause trouble, but mostly people speak before thinking, which is excusable in almost every instance. I do it all the time, alienating people right and left with my strong opinions about sunblock and seatbelts and handwashing.

When a stranger contrives something as spectacular as Mr. Investor, I tend toward the charitable explanation. My first thought was that he must have been embarrassed over his mistake.

But he was definitely expecting something else. In the current startup climate, that is usually (regardless of gender) glad-handing self-promoters, people who want to tell you all about their great new idea, etc etc ad infinitum. If Mr. Investor was expecting a pitch he was definitely disappointed. Perhaps he had a vision of what a tech CEO looks like and I didn’t match, but if so it could have been anything: gender, clothes, age, crooked teeth, backwoods accent.

Realistically, none of this matters. Humans make choices based on their own idiosyncratic interpretations, and there is opportunity cost in every outcome. Maybe the angel investor made a category error in walking away; maybe he guessed correctly that we would not get along. Who knows, and also – who cares? I enjoyed the exchange: it was hilarious.


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