Robert Hunter: The City needs more self-doubt when it comes to improving diversity in its workforce

Posted on June 29, 2015

When on 5th January 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked in to Mellon Bank, Swissdale, Philadelphia, a loaded gun in his hand, it was to be the perfect crime.  It probably didn’t look like one. Standing there, without a mask, most criminals in Wheeler’s position would have been worried about being identified on the bank’s CCTV cameras.  After all, at 5’6″ tall and weighing in at 270 lb, Wheeler was pretty recognisable.

Wheeler wasn’t concerned. He didn’t need a mask because he’d thought of something no bank robber had ever thought of before. He had doused himself with lemon juice.  Lemon juice?  Well, think about it.  Lemon juice is used to make invisible ink.  So Wheeler reasoned that if he covered himself with it, it would make him invisible, at least to the CCTV system.

He’d tested this scientifically by pouring it on his face and taking a polaroid selfie beforehand.  The photo hadn’t come out.  Wheeler didn’t understand exactly why it hadn’t come out, but if his polaroid camera hadn’t worked, nor would the bank’s CCTV film.  Obviously.

It was all over very quickly. Within minutes Wheeler had intimidated a terrified bank clerk out of $5,300. Within hours, he was in police custody. He’d been identified from the bank’s CCTV footage.   It turns out that lemon juice does not make people invisible to cameras.  In fact, it doesn’t affect their visibility at all.  Let’s not get too technical here, but dousing people with lemon juice just makes them look a bit, well, wetter.

So what had gone wrong with Wheeler’s selfie photo experiment?  Perhaps Wheeler had been wrong to believe his selfie was blurred.  After all, as a police spokesman said perfectly reasonably, he probably had his eyes full of lemon juice when he checked it.  Certainly it didn’t look like anyone would be getting a Nobel prize off the back of Wheeler’s botched selfie experiment into the effects of lemon juice.

Actually, two people did. At the same time as Wheeler was contemplating his 22 year prison sentence, 150 miles away, David Dunning, a professor at Cornell University was idly leafing through an almanac of newspaper reports. He saw a report of Wheeler’s arrest in the “Offbeat News Stories” section. He showed the story to his graduate student Justin Kruger and together they carried out an award winning series of experiments that address why it was that Wheeler had so overestimated his criminal genius.

If you have never secretly worried about your competence, it’s probably best that you stop reading this now. You won’t like what Dunning and Kruger found. They gave students a series of ability tests on matters ranging from logical analytical ability to humour and then asked each to guess their overall mark and how well they had done compared to the others.

Those in the top 25% showed a tendency to think that they had underperformed.  They assumed others found the tests as easy as they had. Those in the bottom 25% showed an even stronger tendency to believe that their performance was above average.

Why? As Dunning and Kruger point out, with some skills, criticism is free standing. You can be a restaurant critic without being a good cook or a football pundit without being a good footballer. But with many attributes, judging is much closer to doing.

You can’t think up a logical argument unless you can recognise one, for example.  Poor performers in these skills are “doubly cursed”.   As Dunning and Kruger observed, “their incompetence robs them of their ability to recognise it”. Have you ever wondered why there is so much sexism, but so few people who regard themselves as sexist? Perhaps because they don’t realise they are doing things that others would regard as just that.

There is something faintly ridiculous about people thinking they have a skill, but being too unskilled to realise they haven’t. The problem is that the underperformers’ mistake is, at least in part, “top down”.  “I am a charming person so I handled that situation well” or “I am a good doctor so I am good at breaking bad news to patients”. It is the same process as people go through when they say “I’m not a racist but…

What follows? Pretty often it is something racist. Nor is the Dunning Kruger effect, as it is now called, confined to the realm of obvious idiots. It applies to chess players, medical students and also, according to Dunning, to the “run of the mill lawyer who fails to realise the winning argument is out there”.

30 years ago, it wasn’t difficult to see why there were so few women, ethnic minorities or disabled people in the City. People openly expressed snobbery and prejudice. They would have claimed that they were just being realistic or given a disinterested “that’s how it is” shrug.

I was just starting law then. It was a vile environment and I had to tell a lot of lies about the decline in my hearing to get by in it. I don’t for one moment regret its passing. But its one advantage was that you could confront it directly.

Nowadays the situation is very different. Organisations invest heavily in publicising their diversity and inclusion programmes. Many have full time diversity staff tasked with advertising the fact that the firm espouses its proclaimed values. They place laudable policies on their websites and pay to attend open days specifically for disabled potential candidates.

All deny disablism and the other modern taboos that are intended to delineate prejudice. Some profoundly deaf or partially sighted students are getting training contracts.   Yet the City remains an environment where women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities are under-represented in partnerships and management roles. True, things are getting better. But why is it happening so slowly?

There are probably a number of reasons, but amongst them “top down” thinking has a lot to answer for. Dunning and Kruger found it was curiously hard to change underperformers’ beliefs that they were, in fact, better than average.

It was no use showing them their actual mark, nor showing them other students’ test papers. Even poor chess players who are given an objective rating of their skills are still vulnerable to Dunning Kruger syndrome. They need to be taught the fundamentals of the skill they lack so they can judge their own performance. The problem is that they don’t think they need that training.

Imagine trying to sell Lewis Hamilton driving lessons. That would be difficult. But it wouldn’t be much easier if he were a bad driver and didn’t know it and research shows almost all poor drivers believe they are better than average.

Self belief is fine, when it is justified. But we have not yet struck the right balance between advertising the values that firms wish to espouse and practical training as to what is required to give effect to them. That is particularly the case with treatment of people with disabilities where there can be greater enthusiasm for using disabled staff as diversity PR tools than actively looking out to ensure that they are fairly treated.

Changing the situation will take more than PR and the odd internal event for those who feel like attending it. It means education for HR personnel who run matters on the office floor. In a nakedly hierarchical profession like law, it surely also means education for those who run the business themselves.

Perhaps most of all, what the City needs is a little more self doubt – something to which it seems peculiarly averse. It needs people in management positions who wouldn’t dream of prefacing statements with “I’m not a racist/sexist/disablist but…” because, like the very best of us, they are prepared to entertain the thought that they might be.  Otherwise, PR relating to diversity and values can have much the same effect as McArthy Wheeler’s lemon juice. It can prevent organisations having a clear self image.

So the purpose of this article is to make an offer. City Disabilities will happily come and see you free of charge to help make your workplace better for disabled people. We can talk to you about disability etiquette, and give you our experience of what it feels like to work in the City with a disability. We can tell you about the problems disabled people encounter here and how they hope to be treated.

But we will not publicly endorse your organisation, nor display your logo on our website nor advertise that we are doing it. It’s time to change how things are, not how they look.

Robert Hunter is a partner in a major city law firm.  He is profoundly deaf having suffered from progressive hearing loss since his early teens.   He has conducted advocacy in fraud and trust cases at all stages in the proceedings including carrying out cross examination at trial.  Together with Kayleigh Farmer and Kate Rees-Doherty he founded City Disabilities, offering mentoring and advice to professionals in London.   In his spare time he is a keen pilot and supports Aerobility, a charity that assists disabled pilots to fly.

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