‘Diversity and inclusion is not just what you have to do; it’s about whom you choose to be!’
Justin Jones-Fosu.

From my name, it’s not particularly difficult to work out my country of origin and the Indian stereotype that has automatically popped into your head, with all the associated stories, behaviours and consequences.

Stereotypes might seem inconsequential on the surface, but they become problematic when we subconsciously associate individuals with certain stereotypical behaviour. These snap associations create an unconscious bias in the way we think, feel and behave.

Not long ago, I chanced upon an eye-opening study done by researchers at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto. They found that ‘… people with Chinese, Indian or Pakistani-sounding names were 28% less likely to get invited to an interview than the fictitious candidates with English-sounding names, even when their qualifications were the same.’

While the study drew on data from job listings in Canada, a smaller study commissioned by the French government found that employers were less likely to interview candidates with North African-sounding names.

In the UK, a 2012 all-party parliamentary group study found that women who ‘whitened’ their names or made them sound more British had to send half as many applications before being invited to interview compared to those whose names sounded foreign. The report also found that ‘Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are particularly affected, with 20.5% being unemployed compared to 6.8% of white women, with 17.7% of black women also being unemployed.’

This research made me wonder whether, with a surname like mine, I would ever have been called to a job interview in these countries, let alone to pen this piece.

Examining unconscious bias

While unconscious bias in hiring is evident, it’s important to unpack what unconscious bias is so that leaders, policy makers and organisations can evaluate their current diversity and inclusion (D&I) practices and identify what’s next in the journey.

Unconscious bias is defined as prejudice in favour of or against one thing, person or group compared with another; usually in a way considered to be unfair. Unconscious bias happens when our brain makes snap judgements based on the information it receives, then adds meaning to it. It can manifest in many ways such as how we judge and evaluate others or how we act toward members of different groups.

Biases – conscious or unconscious – are not limited to ethnicity and race. Though racial bias and discrimination are well documented, biases may exist toward any social group; one’s age, gender, gender identity, physical abilities, religion, sexual orientation, weight and many other characteristics are also subject to bias.

Even as organisations globally are busying themselves with integrating D&I into their cultural ethos, hiring policies and business practices, the larger question being raised across boardrooms is: does D&I really contribute to the bottom line?

A 2017 study by the Wharton School on the effect of board gender diversity found little or no positive correlation between diversity and company performance. In fact, Wharton management professor Katherine Klein went so far as to say, ‘the relationship between board gender diversity and company performance is either non-existent (effectively zero) or very weakly positive.’

Why D&I really matters

I believe that financial performance is a very ‘venture capitalist’ perspective on D&I. The pressure to provide a business case means that PLCs’ hands are frequently tied when it comes to D&I. Going beyond the drive for financial imperatives, D&I is justified simply because it’s the right thing to do, culturally and morally. The question not being asked today is: do justice and morality really matter in a boardroom? The simple answer is, yes. The quicker we realise this and act on it, the better.

The rise of political fundamentalism in several countries and the ensuing economic insecurity seem to have accelerated a commitment to white, male and class supremacy in certain quarters. Paradoxically, this has also engendered a collective moral outrage against police brutality towards minority groups. A global movement has arisen which challenges systemic racism and the self-centred, egocentric desires of leaders who pursue self-aggrandisement above all else.

Giving a voice to the marginalised and a more equitable society with justice for all have become planetary rallying points. The world needs leaders who know how to transcend tribal affiliations, who model actions that foster inclusion and belonging, demonstrate expansive mental models and possess the mindsets for building broad-based support for collective action across -isms and divides.

Identifying and overcoming unconscious bias

The present moment demands that we invent new ways of being, doing and relating to the world. I created the Expansive Leadership model with this in mind. It is a robust response to the need to do things differently. Expansive leaders recognise the interconnected nature of our lives and adopt a broader, more morally expansive view of life, its meaning and our relationship with the world. They are collaborative, critically reflective, intergenerational, equitable, emotionally intelligent, intentional and inclusive.

I have no illusion that the Expansive Leadership model alone will resolve all our current woes. Unconscious bias and D&I issues are global, local, nuanced, complex and above all, personal. Expansive Leadership is a powerful framework of thinking and operating; a place to come from, rather than one to get to.

Here are some practical measures the Expansive Leadership model addresses to dismantle unconscious bias, especially in the workplace.

  1. There’s no such thing as over-educating
    Considering the decades of biased thinking already hardwired into our culture, educating and building awareness among governing bodies, boards, committees, employers and employees on the likely direction and magnitude of their own unconscious biases is the first step.
  2. Seek diverse perspectives; forego lip service
    When taking important decisions, genuinely seek inputs from fellow subordinates who represent varying viewpoints. This will help broaden your perspective and weed out hidden prejudices.
  3. Put decisions to the microscope test
    Examining the rationale behind impulsive decisions will reveal the biases hiding in the cracks. Slowing down the decision-making process allows for checks on decisions and statements or remarks about cultural, racial or gender stereotypes that may have slipped in.
  4. Champion practical D&I goals
    Consciously create a D&I team to monitor and set the right cultural behaviours and practices that are aligned to your company’s D&I charter. One idea is to mask details from candidates’ applications to enable a more objective evaluation criteria for vacancies based only on qualifications, skills and experiences.
  5. D&I mentoring works
    Setting up a workplace mentoring program that pairs mature (not necessarily senior) leaders with junior employees can foster a D&I culture, diversify the talent pool and freshen perspectives, while increasing retention and employee engagement.

Identity, significance, belonging and the D&I posturer

While much has been written about the advantages of working from home, there are other often ignored outcomes that have begun to impact the social and business spheres in unintended, negative ways.

Every human being is driven by a need for identity, significance and belonging; the workplace environment offers multiple avenues for fulfilment of these needs. With the increase in working from home, alternative mechanisms which help to fulfil these needs may have arisen. These mechanisms can express themselves through performative allyship and performative D&I work. The multiplicity of trending causes and global movements offer ample room for providing a false sense of identity, significance and belonging among individuals or groups who ride these bandwagons.

Performative allyship and performative D&I work

Performative allyship is largely seen among individuals, while performative D&I work is observed within organisations and institutions. This excerpt from a voxpop on YouTube succinctly defines performative allyship:

‘Performative allyship is when you go to all these happy events like gay pride or even a gay club and you hear things like: “Oh my gosh, I love gay people” and when serious stuff happens in the streets like protesting or writing to senators, then you’re not really there for us. We don’t need fake people … we need people who are honest and true and can help us.’

Reading through the online commentary on the topic, one can see that many unconsciously biased individuals are also likely to be the ones engaging in performative allyship via hashtag activism, changing their social media avatars based on trending causes or engaging in social theatre that goes nowhere and signifies nothing. These behaviours and attitudes then automatically seep into the workplace.

The same tokenism at the corporate level gives rise to performative D&I work. This is clearly observed when companies or organisations rally for D&I in public and are loud about it on social media, yet continue to have discriminatory policies.

We’ve all witnessed corporate theatre of this genre being played out every Black History Month, Juneteenth or special holiday. Organisations around the world pay lip service to D&I, splashing generic D&I imagery on their websites or social media pages. Yet these very institutions have a vast majority of white staff and the mandatory Chief D&I Officer, with no budget, no board representation nor any executive powers.

D&I is global, nuanced and complex

There is no single, globally accepted definition of diversity. It operates in a multiplicity of areas, depending on the region of the world in which it is being examined. Regardless of country, addressing the lack of D&I must feature on every corporate agenda. Given the relative novelty of D&I initiatives, there still is a great deal of misunderstanding about how to define, leverage and measure it.

Being culturally relevant is familiar to organisations with a global presence. Retaining local cultural nuances around a D&I strategy largely centres around establishing a global mindset and paradigm of thinking, rather than exporting specific programs, mandates and structures for fulfilment.

Removing performativity

From the framework of current organisational structures, the C-suite can initiate change in this area like no other group can. To this end, the C-suite for Justice program that I co-founded supports C-suite leaders and incumbents who are interested in being agents for justice and inclusion. C-Suite for Justice is a community of practice, learning and experimentation for senior executives who are committed to leading change in their organisations to make them more inclusive, just and equitable.

Some key areas program members are looking into are:

  • using C-suite privileges and power to effect change
  • placing inclusivity at the heart of an organisation’s core values
  • creating an inclusive and collaborative culture supportive of allyship and brave spaces which encourage dialogue and foster respect
  • enabling justice and compassion to co-exist
  • incorporating best practices, tools and processes to effect real, practical change in the workplace
  • effecting structural changes in areas such as hiring and promotion practices
  • accelerating the use of tech and data to bring transparency into decision-making and power sharing process
  • evaluating the role of governance processes and mechanisms that formulate values
  • bending the moral arc towards more justice, equity and a better world.

D&I work is a moving target. I believe that addressing performative D&I at the organisational level will have a ripple effect in addressing performative allyship behaviours among individuals. As leaders in our organisations, it is our responsibility to keep an eye on discrimination, while weaving equality into the tapestry of our organisation’s culture.

We will emerge as better people and companies when we commit to D&I in our workplaces, communities and institutions.

‘Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.’ Verna Myers.

Latha Poonamallee, Management Chair, The New School and Thought Leader, Management and Social Justice explains that creation of a more equitable culture requires that we live up to our word and ensure that our allyship is not just performative.

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