Women Leadership Series

Breaking Biases

Read Time:16 Minute

Vani Aiyer, GM Corporate Communication, Nissan Motor India, talks about her own biases, the biases that people have about others and how we can overcome them.

Bias according to me is the eighth sin. First, you need to know if you exhibit bias. Then, how do you manage that bias? You could exhibit bias purely by your body language, the way you speak to people or the way you turn away from them. So bias can be demonstrated in multiple ways. But the fun part about all of this is its challenging. I’ve worked in the automotive industry for 25 odd years. Around a year and a half, I worked for Pond’s. That’s how I started my career. Somewhere in the middle of my career, I worked on health food drinks of Glaxo SmithKline. I was better handling petrol and diesel guzzling vehicles and my heart was in the auto industry where I learn something new every day and learn how to tackle something new every day. The auto industry, though, is fraught with bias. I will not restrict the conversation on bias to just man or woman. It also happens by virtue of your religion or culture or country or city.

Bias with Objects

When you look at inanimate objects—a circle, a triangle and a heart, you already have a preconceived notion or a bias. Now that could be a black hole or a circle. There are multiple types of triangles.  The moment we see a heart, we think it’s too tacky or cringey.   My generation used to draw hearts everywhere and we had heart-shaped balloons. But it was embarrassing to buy them on Valentine’s Day for your boyfriend or husband or wife. So hearts have their own bias. Just as basic shapes and inanimate objects have bias; it is obvious that you will have bias when you are human beings. When you have a voice, you will have an opinion. Your opinion will create bias. Look at the fruits. A pineapple is hard and prickly on the outside, but it’s intensely sweet and it comes with its own characteristics. The same goes for an apple. We believe the pits are dangerous. I’m sure your notions are then built on the basis of that bias. Grapes are bad for people with diabetes. There used to be a time when I would see a bowl of grapes and say, ‘wow.’ Today, if I see a bowl of grapes, I turn away. We all change with our life experiences. You are nothing but the experiences in your life and what they make of you.

Bias with People

When it comes to people, we judge and mentally create a balance sheet of their liabilities and assets. It could be emotional or rational.  When we see Rahul Gandhi, we may say that he does this or doesn’t do this. If we see Ricky Ponting, we associate him with brashness. Of course, he was Australian and we have this love/hate relationship with Australia. We think of Kangana Ranaut as making a fair amount of noise and that she is opinionated. We might have never interacted with Rahul Gandhi, Ricky Ponting or Kangana Ranaut but we have opinions about them.  I still remember one of my meetings with Arnab Goswami. It was the first time I met him. I already had an aura of sound around him, but he was very quiet and his handshake was soft and gentle.  Again, when you meet people and they don’t follow etiquette of certain kinds, you judge them. You have bias and they choose to drive your conversations or how you talk to people.

Debadging the Cars

I just want to take an example from the car industry. When we try to bring a product into the market, we first show everybody a car exterior. We debadge the cars, which means that you will never be able to see any logos or spot the manufacturer. You’ll be able to see the muscular lines, the stance of the vehicle, the grill and the headlamps.  Then we show them the car interiors, the luxuriousness or the lack of it.  Then you go through a whole list of its technical specifications.  After you’ve seen all the physicals around it, then you announce the name plate. Once we hear the brand name, we get a different opinion about it. There can be a lack of bias, or a bias, depending on your opinion about the brand in the marketplace. Once you do that, the price will drive a completely different conversation: “No, it isn’t worth it,” or “It is worth it,” etc. Then when you actually drive the car, it brings in a bit of a punch or the lack of a punch. The dichotomies are there for everyone to see.  By positioning or how you brand the vehicle, you pre-conceive people’s notions. They may think, “I’m going to see a big bold, beautiful car in the showroom.”  That’s how positioning plays its part. Then finally, when you look at all of these from the ecosystem of a business or brand, you have a certain opinion. The more research you do, the more conversation you have about something.

Pony Tail and Education

I am a sari clad women. I’m wearing a ponytail. I wear my ear rings; I’m very traditional. But the moment I tell you that I was schooled in Haryana, mostly Hindi-speaking schools—13 schools in 10 years of which only three were English medium, you will have an opinion and that will drive you. If I say that I was in a convent those last two years, you will again hear me differently. The moment I tell you that I went to a particular college—Dayanand Anglo Vedic college—it brings in a certain perspective to it. It’s a very studious college. It looked like a school. There were 12 feet walls with six-feet of barbed wire on top. So that again has a perspective. If I tell you my dad and mom were working people, it has a perspective. If I tell you, my dad was an IPS officer from the Haryana cadre, it will have a different perspective. If I tell you my mother taught in college—she was a Professor of History in Gandhian Studies—it has a different perspective. All of these add or derive bias.

Meddling in the Middle

I’m the middle child in the family. I always say that I carry the attitude of Madhya Pradesh on my shoulders, meaning it’s so large. I used to fight for everything because my elder sister was always older and she was somebody I could never say anything to. My younger sister was always younger, so I could also not say anything to her. I got stuck in the middle. I always got what my elder sister got as hand-me-downs. The next one was five years away, so she never got my hand-me-downs. My career began with JWT and that was an advertising agency. I started as an Assistant Accountant and I got out of there as a Vice President. I am extremely fortunate to have learned from Mythili Chandrasekar there. She drove me to work. She threw projects at me that I thought I could never do and books that I thought I would never read. I am more of a fiction person, but she made me read a lot of nonfiction and ensure that I did that. That helped me get rid of biases.

Then I worked in Ford and TVS. When I joined TVS, people would invariably ask me, “What’s an Iyer doing in Sundaram Iyengar & Sons?” It was a bias they had that was linked to the fact that I wrote my name as Vani Aiyer, but it was because of my North Indian upbringing; I didn’t really care what was after my name. Actually, I used to write my name as Vani Harishankar. Harishankar is my father’s name. But he said, if I have a smaller name, it will fit easily into a passport and he suggested ‘Vani Aiyer.’ He also said, “Anyway, you will only marry an Iyer. So Vani Aiyer will be fine!” So the Aiyer thing stayed with me. In TVS, I spent three years happily. They accepted me the way I am—with all the aggression, conversation, loud speaking and presenting myself. They had no bias in me as such. But there was a different bias. In TVS, most women were in the Secretarial department or in Finance as Chartered Accountants. You would not find women in business. I sat in the management committee conversations, which in itself was a bit too much for everybody. But I had the support of my bosses. I had the support of people who knew I could present my case and that I could articulate what the business needed.

Put Business First

If you put business first, there is no bias. The moment you stand up for the business, the bias goes. Remember you are here to do business. We are all here for time and money. The moment everybody is on the same page on time and money and you realise the fact that you need to do business, the walls of bias just come crumbling down.

Be Prepared

There is nothing better than being well prepared to manage your business on a daily basis. When I left TVS, I thought I had put the final nail in my career’s coffin. Nissan came to me at a time when I thought I was going to hang up my boots. For a year and a half, I worked with them in marketing and I realized the biggest bias I had to face was about numbers. Some of the bias, I created in me and some of the bias, others around me did.

I didn’t score well in school maths and it stayed with me. The fact that I got 7 out of 100 in one test in my class 8 stuck in my head. Every meeting I go, I make sure I write down the numbers, big, bold and in red on a sheet of paper. I can read it without my glasses and I don’t forget that number for my life, whether it is our revenue, profit, how many cars we sell or how many variants we have. That is my prep to ensure that people who sit opposite me, do not hold that bias against me, though I do it to me and sabotage myself. I will tell people that I am poor in Math but a rockstar in English.

In today’s world, it is not just what you have lived through in your career or life. It’s also social media because you have multiple personas.

The Seven Year Itch

I found an interesting way to exhibit how I lived through my entire life of 49 years. At seven, I believed I was my own enemy. My elder and younger sister used to study very well. I had dyslexia of sorts. In those days, nobody knew what dyslexic meant, leave alone, trying to find out if I had dyslexia. I had ADHD. I discovered all that later when I saw the film ‘Taare Zameen Par.’

The Rebel

At 14, I had decided to rebel. So I grew up in the early 80s when you had to get back home before it became dark. I never did that as I mostly stayed out of home. I used to play tennis for an hour, go for swimming and tuitions, which meant I never reached home before 10 pm. But I was doing judicious work and I was in the right place, doing the right thing. My parents always knew where I was but I was rebellious. I actually wanted to be a tennis player but my mother said, “What will everybody say, if a daughter of an IG plays tennis?” So my bias came from people around me and unfortunately, my parents too.

A lot of it is PTSD, at least in my generation. We have all suffered the trauma of our parents not knowing enough of how to deal with the problem, but they have also been our biggest backers. At 21, I thought I was a maverick because I made a decision to get into advertising. In those days, advertising was not a good place for girls to go because “that’s where, the not-so-good people hang around, work happens after dark, you will come after dark and stuff like that.” Within a quick 2 to 5 years, I had my two daughters. In advertising at JWT, at 7 am, I had to be at the plant if I wanted to meet my clients. Then, in the evening, the client would come back to office at 6:00 pm and the discussions would continue. So, it was like, I had to do a dual job. I ended up working from anytime between 6 am in the morning till 12 or 1 in the night. People, you work with, are equally strong about creating situations on bias, not because you are a man or a woman or anything. In fact, I have never thought of myself as a female. I am agnostic to whoever I talked to. I meet interesting people who have phenomenal stories to tell every day. I am age agnostic. We must spend time with people who can actually help us grow and overcome obstacles.

No one can take it away

At 35, I kind of cracked it. I had a boss, a gentleman called Mr. M A Parthasarathy. He used to be known as the brains because he was from BITS Pilani and he did his engineering and later, MBA from IIM. He was completely a 5-star, best performer. I remember him calling me one day and telling me, “Vani. You’ve cut your teeth on strategy and nobody can take it away from you in the automotive world.” I just looked at him with disbelief, as in most cases, my bias would put me down. That was the day my life changed.

Advertising took its toll, but it taught me a lot of things. It taught me how to fight my way up. I moved from advertising career to show space where I worked in events and event management. I worked with different brands—from General Motors to Toyota to Vodafone and so on. I have done cyclothons and marathons. What I learnt amongst all of this is that people come in all shapes and sizes. If you listen to what they have to say to you, more often than not, you will end up stumbling over your own feet. Listen to everybody, but do what you want to do and do what you think is right. If you have the right value system, then your conversations go the right way.

Different Faces on Social Media

Look at yourself on social media. Each social medium shows you differently. For instance, on LinkedIn, I look my professional self and if you go over there, my entire career history can be seen. On Facebook, I have my social conversations. On Twitter, I share my opinions about cricket, politics, media, cars, auto, about anything and everything. In Insta, I post lots of photos and stories and fun facts. It talks about how I think and how I feel very open. I am a big fan of Pinterest. If you go to Pinterest, I express myself and catch up on a lot of content, which is phenomenal. But each one of these social handles shows me differently. If you saw only one of them, you would talk to me differently. You would have a preconceived thought process about me or the way you would think of me. That’s how people would perceive you as well. So, the biases that you have, when you look at all of these social forums is just infinite. If you don’t have bias, you will be a saint. Every one of us has bias to begin with and none of us is a saint. The time that we have to do business is finite. We have limited time and limited money. We must try to see how to make bias work for us.

The Five Rules to Manage Bias

I have five rules to manage bias and they’re very simple.

Number one. Behind any successful man, or woman, there could be a man or a woman. It could be anybody. For me, it is my husband. We decided to keep our work life separate and even today; nobody comes to pick me up from the airport. Be agnostic. Be agnostic to religion, age, state, country or whatever. Agnostic as a word is a great takeaway. If you try to be as agnostic as you can, you won’t have any preconceived notions about people or where they come from.

The second and the most crucial, you must always be prepared. The best way to remove bias from any conversation is to be very well prepared. If you go prepared into a discussion, you will always go for a win-win solution.

The third and something I believe in: Be generous. I believe Karma exists because I have seen it occur. I’ve seen it happen in my lifetime, not once, not twice but a billion times. What goes around, comes around. How you treat others is how you will get treated at some point later. Then don’t ask the world why it is all happening to me. It is happening to you because you deemed universe to work in a certain way.

Fourth, have a voice. Have a point of new. All of us have a tongue. God has given us great functional tools. We can stand pain, power, stress issues, sicknesses and everything. But if you don’t use the voice that you’ve been gifted with, it’s a travesty to your body.

Fifth, and finally, make yourself so strong. When they say, ‘The strength is within you,’ I used to think it’s crap. I had no idea of what was within me. But I realised that, over a period of time, you end up looking at problems and solutions in creative ways and that builds you up as individuals. And that is what is within you. Answers are not there in any book. There is no guidebook to live life or move away from bias. You live through it. You try to put it into an Excel sheet. I think Excel sheets are fabulous stuff, even though I was completely against math.

The human beings are so different from anything else that you can be like a dolphin. Dolphins are still evolving but they push away sharks, knocking their sides with their bulbous nose when they are attacked. One would think one can’t escape a shark attack, but that’s how dolphins save themselves from shark attacks. When you go into a conversation and you want to have a win-win solution, you need to be dolphin like. You need to be creative, because that will drive bias away. We all have bias. We are not born with bias. We acquire bias along the way. The only way to knock bias out is to have your own little, cheat sheets on. These are my five cheat sheets but you will find your own experiences and your own means and ways to get bias out.