On International Women’s Day this year, we were treated to a fascinating talk from A New Normal, a diversity and inclusion consultancy. Their session focused on bias in the workplace: what it involves, how it starts, and what we can do to challenge it. Trish Driver, Gigi Gordon, and Julie Martins were able to guide us through the intricacies of such a loaded topic and give us the tools to go away and begin addressing these issues in our own workplace.
A recurrent theme of their discussion was the idea that bias is not an evil trait, or something that needs to be treated with an air of negativity. It is, nevertheless, something that we need to challenge.
The word itself is often surrounded by a certain miasma – and people will naturally get defensive when accused of it. That’s why the speakers’ goal was to dispel some of that negativity, to make it less about finger-pointing and more about making things fair and equitable.
Our biases are based on our bubble, our life experiences, the things that made us who we are. At any given moment, our brains are bombarded with around 40 million pieces of information at any given moment. Of that, we can only consciously process around 40. We have a limited conscious processing capacity – like an inefficiently designed CPU – and so our brains evolved to do a lot of the work quickly and instinctually.
The fact that this bias serves a purpose, however, is why we need to be aware of it. It’s so unconscious as to be almost undetectable: even, and perhaps especially, by the person whose head it’s happening in.
Similar, but different
Another idea the speakers discussed that warrants repeating here is that diversity is not the same thing as inclusion – and that those who seek to work towards these ideals need to understand that difference.
The speakers explained how diversity is a state of difference: a wide variety of perspectives and life experiences existing in the same place. That is commendable, but alone it is not enough. Inclusion, on the other hand, is about bringing those perspectives into our teams and the work at hand – creating a richness of scope and understanding.
Furthermore, inclusion will never be the same as a mere lack of exclusion. Just because a person is not explicitly told they aren’t welcome in the workplace, that doesn’t mean that they’ll feel welcome.
For example, a Stonewall report revealed that 35% of LGBT staff have hidden their sexuality at work for fear of discrimination. This figure includes individuals who may have been out at university, and rises to 42% of black, Asian, and minority ethnic staff. If you’re underrepresented in the workplace, you need proactive inclusion to feel like you can fit in, like you belong.
Inclusive teams are not just better for wellbeing – they improve business outcomes too. According to Deloitte research, increases to individuals’ feelings of inclusion translates into a rise in perceived team performance (17%), decision-making quality (20%), and collaboration (29%).
Stop, think, and respond - don’t just react
Ultimately, the best first step in combating bias in our day-to-day working life is taking time. Take time before you make a snap decision. Take time when you instantly assume something about somebody. Take time, and a step back, and think about why we leap to the judgements that we do: benign or otherwise.
Calling out bias where we see it is important too. At NTT DATA we are proud to create inclusive spaces, and talks like our International Women’s Day session, that empower our employees to feel like they have the support to gently point out these situations. It’s about having the bravery to start a conversation, and the importance of having a culture that enables that.
You don’t have to be a bad person to experience unconscious bias. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that there isn’t a person alive today who has never assumed something about somebody else before meeting them. The key thing to remember is that it is what we do with this assumption that defines us.
I leave you with a favourite quote of Trish Driver, Founder of A New Normal: “You’re not responsible for your first thought – but you are responsible for your second one, and your first action.”