The new frontier of Diversity and Inclusion - Intentionally overcoming unconscious bias
Unconscious bias doesn’t make anybody a bad person. But overcoming unconscious bias surely makes them a better person. D&I is an attempt to build an environment such that people don’t have to check any part of themselves at the door. The People Matters BeNext ‘D&I: Overcoming Unconscious Bias Program,’ taking place 9 August - 3 September 2021, empowers leaders to address these biases and build a more inclusive, psychologically-safe work environment for all.
In this article we hear from the BeNext program’s six Lighthouse Keeper Speakers across industries and sectors to see how they are ensuring inclusion happens at their grassroots, as well as what learners can expect from the upcoming program.
As organizations across the world face key challenges - both in the form of rising difficulties owing to the ongoing pandemic as well as other challenges across all business functions - there is one particular business strategy that can optimise change not just in the short term but also create the ideal foundation for long term growth: Diversity and Inclusion.
D&I refers to not one process alone but rather connotes a structural change within an organization which facilitates a more diverse workforce, with conditions that are equitable for everybody involved and where everyone feels included.
While on the surface, these terms seem fairly self-explanatory, there is a lot of baggage within them. Historically speaking, these terms have been associated with movements of struggle and reckoning. Today, they find a place in corporate culture because the meaning they have historically carried is all the more relevant today. Across the course of the BeNext Certification program, we take a closer look at certain contexts in which these meanings can find relevance today, in a world that is not just struck with strife in the general sense, but which is also trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic specifically. We will do this by looking at the what, why, how, and when, with the one intention of overcoming unconscious bias.
The “What” of D&I: An Attempt to See Another Fully
Understanding unconscious bias has been the background of much of Dr. Sondra Thiederman’s work. One of the Lighthouse Keepers on the BeNext program, Dr Thiederman is also the President of Cross-Cultural Communications and the author of four books, including ‘Three Keys to Defeating Unconscious Bias: Watch, Think, Act.’ With over 25 years experience as a speaker, trainer, and author, Dr Thiderman has helped myriad professionals in Fortune 500 companies, public sector organisations as well as a plethora of associations. Her work centers around creating and fostering diverse workspaces where there is a governing sense of equity and inclusivity, and her work forges the path to to successfully sustain as well as navigate them.
As a Lighthouse Keeper on the BeNext program, Dr Thiederman enables the learners to see how unconscious bias undermine D&I at every level and what can be done to acknowledge and address these prejudices, assumptions or thoughts we have about certain groups that lead us to act and make decisions in particular ways. Dr Thiederman’s work on unconscious bias reveals that there are subtle ways in which these thoughts creep into an organization’s governing structures as well as its policies. Where do unconscious biases come from, and how can they be identified and overcome? And moreover - how do these biases relate to D&I efforts, and how can the damage they cause be mitigated? As part of the program, Dr Thiederman will deliver an explorative masterclass session in which these questions and many more will be addressed in depth.
“Unconscious bias undermines all of our efforts,” Dr Thiderman says, “including D&I efforts, because the bottom line is they keep us from seeing people for who they are, adding that,“ because we can't see them for who they are, we're not able to promote the right people, because we're making assumptions about what they're good at. A lot of people have probably experienced that when an employer or potential employer concludes that, because of the nature of your cultural background you will be good at something, or that you would care about something that you really don't. And so this is how it keeps us from seeing people accurately.
“Ultimately, this affects the leaders’ effectiveness. If a leader can't know who his or her workforce is, who the people are, and what's accurately going on owing to an unconscious bias, then there's no way they can succeed.”
Thus, the foundational effort of D&I is to see another person for who they are, so that they can be appreciated accurately, as opposed to being praised or ignored due to the unconscious biases of those that are making the decisions.
One of the key aspects of enabling the entire workplace structure and the leadership to see people as they are is compassion. It is a very important leadership skill in today’s time and age. Another program Lighthouse Keeper, Duncan Hewett (Senior VP and GM for VMware’s business in Asia Pacific & Japan) puts it very well, stating, “There’s a lot going on behind the virtual background that we don't see.” Hewett continues by saying that even then, the virtual platform is a leveling platform. Everybody is contributing visually, you know which idea came from whom, there are comments to fall back on and so forth. The best thing that this virtual office space has shown is that people are willing to change and adapt, and if they are then tackling unconscious bias, this can be embedded into daily rigmarole.
But with this covered, the next question to ask is: why is this so important? How will a leader’s ability to accurately tell what’s going on - without their unconscious biases - lead to success in any measurable way?
The “Why” of D&I: Innovation fueled by a strong set of values
There is a lot of research that has been done on this topic. Ahead of the program, we spoke with another Lighthouse Keeper, Parmesh Shahani (Vice President at Godrej Industries Ltd, author of Queeristan (2020) and Gay Bombay (2008) and Yale World Fellow) who elaborated on a key concern of the new generation of workers:
“At the macro level, there’s a lot of data that suggests that DE&I efforts lead to increased revenue,” Shahani says. There’s a research paper published by PwC in 2018, which shows that there are trillions of dollars to be made if the LGBTQ population enters workforces across the world, while there are about 200 million dollars in India’s part of the population alone. But while this is a substantial reason in and of itself, there is something more important to consider here.
“Younger people are gravitating towards companies and leaders that care. And it’s not just queer people or disabled people, this is just as true also for able-bodied people as well as straight people. Even if we consider the majority of people, or sets of people who constitute the majority - they don’t want to work in organizations that don’t have a strong set of values. More than ever if you want to attract the best talent you have to commit, not just in words, but in action as well.”
“Post-COVID, we now know that companies that innovate and rapidly iterate will survive. There’s enough data that says that companies with inclusive cultures are 6 times as likely to be innovative - this is Deloitte’s research from 2016. Post-COVID, there will be only 2 types of companies: ones that are inclusive, agile, and iterative, which are able to survive the shocks that will necessarily come with time, while the others that will be like dinosaurs, who would realise too late that they are no longer relevant, and thus won’t be able to survive.”
Complex problems require a variety of perspectives to solve and, as we continue to negotiate a number of complicated unknowns, the business case for diversity is absolutely undeniable. When you start looking at people as talent and merit in action, unconscious bias fades. With organizations poised to empower all kinds of talent (at least in theory), Parmesh believes it is a stepping stone to battling unconscious bias.
With this crucial bit of insight, we can now move onwards to yet another dimension of D&I - how it can be implemented in the right manner so that the workforce can find support in the leadership, and which can also facilitate the leadership to find support in the workforce as well.
The “How” of D&I: A powerful invitation to change!
It may seem like an obvious question to ask, “How do we become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive as an organization?” but in reality there are no obvious answers. However, there are some simple answers, and we found one with Lighthouse Keeper, Maria Teixidor, CEO of VUCA Solutions, an organisation that helps advise cultural organisations and technological start-ups on conflicts. Teixidor formerly served as President of the Grup Edelmira Calvetó, an entity set up by the Barcelona board with the mission of reclaiming the legacy of women in FC Barcelona’s history. With this background, Teixidor already has extensive experience in understanding not only the need for D&I but how to execute it with all of its nuances as well as complications.
“Once you’ve identified that your organization is not as diverse as you would like it to be, the way forward is through conscious action towards making that a reality,” Teixidor says. “A question that is always relevant for anybody trying to practice D&I is to ask themselves: “Who is missing here?” and to follow that up with, “Do I have all the views I need into this problem - or is someone missing?” In fact, the most remarkable thing about this question is that you can ask this question to your team members as well, and their answers will be helpful in guiding you to the right person as well.
Duncan Hewett put it beautifully, stating, “a big part of the show is communication. So think about how to communicate to the audience, meet them where they are, and provide enough presence into the marketplace to allow people to know what you can do to help them.”
“The fact of the matter is that diverse talent needs opportunity. By choosing to be inclusive, you can allow a multitude of voices to bring their knowledge and drive change. This also facilitates lifelong learning, which is not a static process but rather a dynamic process that keeps on changing with time. We learn throughout our lives from a variety of ways, whether it is through our peers, or through talking to different people, or by bringing diverse talent into our teams. Ultimately, practicing inclusion creates the right kinds of systems and processes that create inclusion.”
Another of the program’s Lighthouse Keeper’s, Liam McNally (Diversity & Inclusion Partner at GitLab Inc.), speaks to the fact D&I is an ongoing process that reacts to individual needs and encompasses the entire organisation, rather than a set of initiatives or temporary measures. “[The company] are constantly looking at how we can make our benefits more inclusive,” McNally says. “So whether that's from parental leave, but recently we had a COVID-19 benefit so if you contracted COVID-19, you are able to apply for up to, up to, 16 weeks of paid sick leave.”
With this, we understand that D&I can be facilitated quite simply, by having - or rather, attempting to create - a structure that can speak to the absences of those that are not included, and in doing so, take the first step towards including them.
In fact, in a historic vote, a first of its kind, France’s Parliament voted to introduce gender quotas on executive teams and leadership pipelines of companies over 1,000 people. The targets are set at a minimum of 30% of either gender by 2027 and 40% by 2030.
And here, we reach the last step of the journey - how can we unfold D&I efforts at one point in time? Was it possible to have implemented D&I convincingly some time ago - and if so, has the ship sailed? Or can we now implement D&I policies at the need of the hour? Let’s take a look below.
The “When” of D&I: The need to be progressive
If an organization hasn’t already thought through the various D&I principles, it may seem like an overwhelming journey to start the process from scratch and implement policies which may or may not work in real time. The timing of D&I may seem to be a crucial element - and it is - but not quite in the way that one expects. For insight on this, we turned to Lighthouse Keeper Dr Ritu Anand, Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Tata Consultancy Services.
“At times like these, we all have to knock ourselves to be inclusive, for the ones who are not seen in large numbers” Dr Anand says. “Just the other day I saw a flyer coming to me for a panel discussion about a very hot topic, and all the panelists were from one homogeneous group.”
Dr Anand’s contention is that D&I efforts need to be present all the time, year-round, and for the efforts not to become complacent at any point. Leaders should learn from those that are unlike them, and constantly push themselves forward to bring about new changes. In connection with this, Dr Anand shares a snippet of her own story as well:
“The transition from a city in Punjab to Mumbai, a city in Maharashtra, and getting into corporate life, made me realize that there is strength in differences, and in different kinds of abilities. I learned a lot from people who come from a different social conditioning than I was from - or I am from.
“Now what I do is that I put in conscious thought about people who are different from me, not from the same city, the same culture, or the same background. I look for them, because I don't know much. I learn from them. And that is how all leaders should think, in my opinion and that is the mindset, which is progressive. In my opinion, I have become moved from being regressive in my thinking to progressive in my thinking. And I would only wish that leaders, consciously, look around the table and see what they see.”
Dr Anand’s appeal to look around the table and see who is included and who isn’t is a condensation of the larger concern of when D&I efforts need to be foregrounded. And the answer is simple: it needs to be in the foreground all the time. It doesn’t matter what the occasion is, who is the addressor or the addressee, or why a particular event is taking place - D&I efforts need to be included in the very DNA of an organization, and they need to happen year round.
In fact, the very structure of the organization itself has the power to drive these changes. As we explore in the final chapter of the BeNext certification program, there are a number of approaches and actions leaders can take to make it easier for well-meaning people to do the right thing when it comes to encouraging accountability for change, accelerating D&I efforts more meaningfully and perpetuating psychological safety and inclusivity across the organization.
We spoke to another of our Lighthouse Keepers, Carine Rolland (Head of Organisational Development and Talent Management for Asia Pacific and the Middle East at ManpowerGroup), about the organisational structure’s role in driving effective D&I efforts:
“I would say collaboration is a very strong value as well, so a diverse organization should encourage everyone to work together,” Rolland says. “Across all departments and levels and functions don't work in their own individual silos, they work together, they share knowledge, focusing on achieving more through teamwork and not individual efforts. An additional value I would see is the desire to learn, the willingness to learn, so employees know there are so many benefits from learning from each other. Inclusive workplaces have typically set up buddies or mentoring programs, for example, but just learning from your peers and everyone in the company is so powerful.”
Thus, what seemed like a topical issue concerning the question of timing - when to begin? - finds its answer in a statement of continuation - “at all times”. Addressing and acknowledging our unconscious biases is a great place to start.
The four-week BeNext ‘D&I: Overcoming Unconscious Bias’ Cohort Certification Program is running from 9 August - 3 September 2021. To find out more about the program, click here.