Diversity and Inclusion: It’s time for us ALL to act [Part One]

In this two-part blog we will look at four areas that, regardless of role or position, we should all focus on to help create, foster and sustain a diverse and inclusive workplace:

  1. Celebrate Diversity
  2. Tackle Unconscious Bias
  3. Challenge Systems
  4. Be an Ally

Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is a topic that has ranked highly on priority lists for decades. And now more than ever it’s top of mind for all leaders. And that’s a good thing!

But no more research is needed. Talking about it can stop. It is time for action. Not because it is in the news or there’s a strong business case, or because it creates a competitive advantage. But because it is the right and only thing to do. And not just for leaders. Although a well-articulated D&I strategy with measurable targets and a comprehensive implementation plan is important, we cannot wait for that to happen. We have to act now.

But where do we start? There is a lot that needs to be done, and at an individual level it can feel overwhelming and almost impossible to make a substantive difference. But, to quote Bishop Desmond Tutu: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

1.    Celebrate Diversity

The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) defines diversity as “…the mix. It is what differentiates each one of us – a mix of many different things.”

It is this “mix” that makes diversity complex and multifaceted. It is not about quotas and it is more than representation. If you have two people in a room, even if they are identical twins, you have diversity. This is because our life experiences, education, culture, upbringing, and so many more factors, all play a part in making us who we are and contribute to the dimensions of our diversity.

Even though as humans we have a lot in common, we are also unique, and that is what we must celebrate. Every single one of us should demand the right to bring our whole, authentic selves to work. Not only because diverse teams are more innovative, make better decisions, and are more productive, but because no one should have to hide their truths, struggles and experiences when they arrive at work.

Feeling worried about being judged or discriminated against at work because of who we are is the reality many people experience, and some of this can be mitigated by the next area of focus.

2.  Tackle Unconscious Bias

Unconscious (or implicit) bias is a subtle cognitive process. Our brain, to synthesize the massive amount of stimuli it experiences, unconsciously categorizes information based on initial instincts, which often include some kind of biases. These biases can be at the individual, group, or institutional level, and can have positive or negative consequences. Over 150 unconscious biases have been identified, and many of them show up in the workplace.

The very fact that these biases are unconscious makes them harder to pin down, and almost impossible to eradicate. But that does not mean we can ignore them. We must make every effort to surface our biases in order to tackle them. Because if we don’t, the impacts will include poor decision-making, discrimination, microinequities, microaggressions and stereotype threat.

So how do we tackle our unconscious biases?

  • It starts with the belief that doing so is for the greater good, and with the desire to learn more about the topic.
  • We then need to accept the fact that everyone has unconscious biases – it is part of our fundamental survival mechanism. Accepting this helps us to move beyond the paradigm that bad people have bias and good people do not. Without this acceptance, unconscious bias is something to be ashamed of and it remains hidden.
  • It is our own stories and experiences that contribute to the way we see and experience the world, and by understanding them, we can challenge them. The willingness to turn the light on ourselves and to consciously observe ourselves “in action” provides the opportunity to dis-identify from the automatic reactions that usually dominate our thinking.
  • To move to such a more thoughtful conscious state, we need to PAUSE:
        – Pay attention
        – Acknowledge our assumptions
        – Understand our perspective
        – Seek different perspectives
        – Examine our options and make a decision
  • Our cognitive resources are limited, and as the day goes on they decline. Like when we’re tired or hungry, our brains rely more on that unconscious fast processing, which is more prone to bias. So to reduce the chances of bias breaking through into behaviour, have a snack or take a break.
  • One of the most effective ways to dis-identify with our biases is through exposure to people and groups we harbour biases against. Being exposed to counter-stereotypes or exemplars of the particular group in question can help to diminish the generalized negative biases we have towards that group.
  • Part of making a concerted effort to tackling unconscious bias is working together. Help others to be more aware of their behaviours so they are able to self-correct and don’t be afraid to call others out and/or to address the issue.
  • And finally, ask for feedback – knowing how we are doing can help to uncover or get to the root causes of our unconscious biases so that we can continue to tackle them.

In Part Two we’ll explore how to challenge systems and what it takes to be an ally.

In Kwela’s Diversity & Inclusion workshop, participants gain a better understanding of their role in cultivating a world of inclusivity.

Helen Schneiderman, Senior Consultant