Seeing eye to eye: navigating physical difference in the workplace

AMI Senior Policy Adviser Chloe Timperley shares her experience - how much of a barrier is a physical inability to make eye contact – in work, social settings, and life in general?

I recently came across this video about ‘Appearance-inclusive workplaces’ on my LinkedIn newsfeed, featuring an interview with alopecia awareness campaigner Laura Mathias, and CEO of Face Equality International Phyllida Swift.

I was intrigued (and highly recommend watching the video). Not only is visible difference a lesser talked-about aspect of D&I, but it’s also something that hits close to home.

Sometime in the coming months, I’ll be having surgery on my right eye to correct a severe divergent squint, a condition otherwise known as strabismus. You can’t tell in my LinkedIn profile picture because I can briefly straighten my eyes for a photo. But this is similar to a ‘normal’ person crossing their eyes – holding my eyes straight for more than a few seconds is uncomfortable bordering on painful.

In conversation, I am physically unable to make eye contact with both eyes at the same time. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see myself looking back. When speaking on stage, I seem to be looking at the ceiling. Often, people will instinctively look over their shoulder when I address them directly, or the person next to them replies. Other times, people take my divergent eyes to mean I am not interested in what they have to say, and they turn to face someone else in the group.

I know this behaviour is completely unconscious or borne of genuine uncertainty as to where I am looking, so I don’t hold it against anyone for reacting in this way*. Also, none of these interactions is life-shattering on an individual level.

It’s just that, over time, the accumulation of papercuts to your self-esteem does begin to smart. Doctors say the eye strain and cognitive load of trying to ‘manage’ my eyes in social settings could be the reason I get so many tension headaches and migraines. A lifetime build-up of these everyday frictions and frustrations led me to opt for the surgical route – which thankfully is available on the NHS, as it’s ‘reconstructive’ surgery not cosmetic.

‘Am I being paranoid?’ – the perils of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is something I’ve discussed and thought over a lot in the last 18 months or so – particularly back when I was leading on the Association of Mortgage Intermediaries’ Diversity and Inclusion project, Working in Mortgages. Biases get baked into us at a societal and cultural level, and we don’t necessarily know they’re there until someone points them out.

This is also why unconscious bias can be so insidious for the person experiencing it. You don’t know whether it’s in your imagination, or whether your visible difference is genuinely affecting people’s perceptions of you. One study revealed that women with strabismus faced significantly greater barriers to career advancement and earnings potential than their straight-eyed counterparts. According to strabismus surgeon Dr Rupa Wong, other studies have produced similar findings in men.

As research from Face Equality International shows:

In the arts, all too often, facial or visible differences are employed as a visual shorthand to indicate a character is psychologically or morally damaged. Characters with scars and other visible differences are cast as evil villains, pitiful victims, and renegade vigilantes. Their stories overwhelmingly center shame, bitterness, and rage.

This has serious consequences as people with visible difference navigate a world that has been taught to fear anyone who looks different. People with visible difference face challenges in school, relationships, careers, mental health, and more. All of these barriers are heightened by poor media representation, which reinforces a negative bias towards people with disfigurements.

After reading this, I decided to go and hunt for cinematic and literary depictions of characters with strabismus. The most famous ones I could find were:

  • Marty Feldman’s Igor from Young Frankenstein;
  • One of Scar’s henchman – an insane hyena – in the Lion King (Disney scoring a hat-trick in lazy stereotypes there; equating disfigurement, strabismus and mental illness with villainy);
  • The obnoxious child from Finding Nemo;
  • All of the screen-addicted couch humans in Wall-E;
  • And finally, my personal favourite: Voldemort’s mum.

Not a very flattering list.

This is how unconscious bias works, and why DE&I champions are so vocal about the importance of representation in the media. You may think you have neutral feelings towards people with visible facial differences, but when you probe deeper, you start to see how your perceptions may have been shaped in both subtle and formative ways. It’s no wonder I got teased throughout school for being ‘boz-eyed’.

Now, at age 32, I want to see what life is like on the other side. Maybe it won’t change much, and I’ll discover that actually, I just happen to find social environments hard to navigate sometimes – with or without a divergent squint.

Or maybe I will find it easier to connect with new people, feel heard, and make better first impressions. I’m also hoping it will mean reduced eye strain and fewer migraines. And it may seem a small thing, but it would be so wonderful to look in the mirror and see myself looking back – especially if the NHS can fit me in before my wedding day next year. All of these improvements would be life-changing, so it’s worth a shot.

Why rooting out bias is a shared responsibility – not an individual one

But I am acutely aware that I am one of the lucky ones – many people don’t have the option to have their visible difference corrected. For that reason, the onus should be on us a society to remove the stigma around visible differences, facial or otherwise, and unpick the dodgy perceptions programmed into us.

As the video that inspired this article highlights, this issue is becoming more pertinent in an age of AI, as human biases are liable to be amplified in technology designed to replicate human behaviour and thought patterns.

Implementing this technology before biases are rooted out could make life needlessly difficult for people whose ‘face doesn’t fit’. A small example is that I have yet to successfully get through an automated passport scanner. A bigger worry is hearing that some corporations are now using AI to score video-based job applications using candidates’ facial expressions and other arbitrary markers.

If there’s one thing this whole experience has taught me, it’s that ‘meaning well’ isn’t always enough. If we want to be kind and welcoming towards others, sometimes we need to consciously fight and question our knee-jerk reactions. Getting it wrong doesn’t make you a bad person – all humans are flawed and make mistakes. But it’s worth being aware that faulty programming could be hijacking your best intentions.

This isn’t limited to visible differences; it applies across the diversity spectrum. And if you can remain unfazed, and treat a person with a visible difference like you would any other, that small action has the power to make a profound impact. Read more about unconscious bias in the workplace in our blog post from Accord Mortgages – Unconscious Bias: Why it matters.

Face Equality International has produced a good practice guide to creating appearance-inclusive workplaces for HR professionals and employers in conjunction with Queen Mary University of London.

Read more about the work of Face Equality International.

*NB: For anyone reading this who wants to avoid this mistake when talking with a person with strabismus – the trick is to identify the dominant eye. Someone with a lazy eye/squint will be looking at you primarily with one eye, and the other will be drifting in, out, up or down. Before you look around to check they’re talking to you – or turn away because it seems they’re not listening to you – try to identify the dominant eye looking straight ahead (in the same direction they are facing), and ignore the one looking off in a different direction. Hope that helps!