TechForum 2019 was informative as usual, with diversity, audiobooks and artificial intelligence standing out as recurring themes. Over the next few weeks, we will share what we learned at the conference.
In today’s post, we recap the keynote speech of the forum, which was given by Ritu Bhasin, an award-winning speaker, author, and expert in diversity and inclusion, women’s advancement and authentic leadership. Her keynote speech titled Disrupting Bias: Overcoming our Discomfort with Difference explored how to take on the bias that exists in our lives and our systems.
Bhasin began her keynote by addressing the issue of bias. When it comes to disrupting bias, she told the audience, there are two types of change that are most relevant. The first type is systemic change, which is a type of change that impacts practices and business systems such as marketing and sales. The second type of change is individual change, also known as personal behaviour change. This is change for which we are each personally responsible. Bhasin emphasized that while systemic change is important, at the end of the day, we are the system, and if we want the system to change, then the change has to begin with us.
Diversity and inclusion in Canada’s changing demographic and business landscape
In the Canadian context, there is a marked imperative for change: Canada’s changing demographics. There is currently a lack of cultural awareness and understanding of how the country’s demographics are changing and that Canada’s diversity needs are. A review of the country’s demographics reveals that diversity and inclusion must be part of a business’s strategy if they want to succeed, as they are key to growing a customer base. Diverse populations represent a huge and underserved market base. Bhasin illustrated her point by sharing some statistics about Canada’s shifting demographic.
- By 2036:
- 50% of the market will be people of colour;
- 25% of the population will be immigrants;
- The most populous groups include Black, South Asian, Chinese and Indigenous;
- South Asians will be the largest group and will account for a quarter of Toronto’s population.
When it comes to incorporating diversity and inclusion principles into business practices, Bhasin suggested beginning by reflecting on the difference between diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion in fact exist on a continuum, which can be broken down into three main parts:
- Compliance: the lowest level approach to diversity, compliance principles seek to meet the bare minimum. Companies who take a compliance approach to inclusion principles have no proactive action on diversity.
- Diversity: diversity approaches focus on quantitative representation of difference, also known as “diversity by counting.” Quotas around staff, creatives, and spaces are an example of diversity principles in the workplace. These principles are an important starting place, as numbers are needed in order to move on to the next step. However, the focus on numbers means that diversity tends to be a lot of verbal affirmations that fall away in the face of dominant cultural practices, and those who are different can feel either vilified or like token representatives.
- Inclusion: this approach focuses on the qualitative experience in the workplace. With inclusion approaches, more time and money are spent on representation as a company seeks out ways to create a truly inclusive workplace for all. Inclusion principles are based on a fundamental and observable inclusion imperative. This means that staff and creatives do not have the sole responsibility of making changes to deflect bias, such as avoiding bringing certain foods to or wearing certain clothes in the workplace. People working in inclusive spaces, do not have to mask or alter their habits or lives in any way.
Bhasin explained that another way to consider the difference between diversity and inclusion is to think of diversity as seeking equality, while inclusion seeks equity. In equality, everyone is treated the same. While this may seem fair, treating everyone the same does not necessarily yield the same results for every person. Inclusion seeks to remedy disparities by looking not for equality, but for equity. Equity acknowledges the histories and realities of power, privilege and supremacy. Inclusion also emphasizes the development of anti-oppression and decolonization practices. In addition to these practices, inclusion tries to chip away at ingrained standards and underlying beliefs that impact business decisions and spaces. Inclusion requires understanding of the framework of the business so that oppressive practices and beliefs can truly be tackled and not simply built over or solved with a patchwork solution.
The issue of bias
An essential part of developing an inclusive workspace is to work on one’s own biases. Bias is a natural part of being human—as Bhasin stated, if you have a brain, you have biases. Biases are mental shortcuts for decision-making and can be good as they help us stay safe, helping us recognize that fire or traffic are dangerous environments. However, just as bias helps us quickly decide which environments are safe or unsafe, it can also become an internalized shortcut that determines which individuals are safe or unsafe. In other words, bias can unconsciously determine who we decide to help and who we decide to ignore. For this reason, bias training is a must for any business developing diversity and inclusion principles, especially as diversity often demands that we inhabit uncomfortable spaces and situations.
Bhasin explained that there are three fundamental ways bias presents itself:
- Dishing out: we all have biases and apply them to the world and people around us.
- Receiving: we feel others applying their biases to us, and may change, suppress or doubt part of ourselves in order to ease the discomfort.
- Internalizing: not only do we feel the negative bias coming our way, we believe it. The biases others apply to us become part of our identity, since it is difficult to avoid unconsciously absorbing bias and self-selecting out instead of leaning in.
To better understand the role bias plays in our everyday lives, she explained two key concepts from the neuroscience of bias, starting with the “likeness bias.” In under one second, our brain sorts a new person into Us or Them. This unconscious sorting process, known as the likeness bias, occurs as our brain scans for danger five times every second. An identification of sameness sends us the message that the new person is less likely to harm us, and to treat the person nicely. However, if the person is sorted into the Them category, the message of difference tells us to proceed with caution, as our reptilian brain reacts with fear to the unknown. Essentially, we gravitate towards things that are like us, and are skeptical of things that are different. Breaking down the likeness bias takes awareness, as the sorting process is unconscious. In order to gain greater awareness of our own likeness bias, Bhasin suggested paying attention to who you decide to sit beside on the bus or in other public situations. Who do you drift towards?
The second aspect of bias that Bhasin explored is how our biases cause us to qualify and categorize others through a process she referred to as the “filing cabinet.” She used the metaphor of a filing cabinet to help explain how we not only sort people into categories, or “files,” such as race, gender and age, but we also add qualifiers to these files, as we unconsciously associate different meanings and adjectives with each category. For example, when we meet a woman in her early forties, our brain goes to our bias filing cabinet and opens the corresponding file and uses the information associated with that label as a guide on how to treat the person. The information in the file comes from the likeness bias, but also from previous interactions with people of that label. Moreover, as we interact with the person, we add information to the file. Importantly, we also add information to the label based on messages from media, such as film, television, news stories, and books. In other words, what we absorb from the world around us matters—and the publishing industry has the powerful potential to interrupt our biases.
Tools and strategies for creating a more inclusive publishing industry
After this overview, Bhasin offered the audience a simple strategy to countering biases: conscious awareness. It is important to remember that noticing difference is not inherently bad, as we are doing it all the time unconsciously anyways. What does matter is that we each become aware not only of the labels we assign to others, but of the meaning we attach to those labels. Bhasin reminded the audience that the goal of conscious awareness is not to feel guilty, but rather to become more mindful of how you set others up for success. In fact, associating a bias with guilt can have long term negative effects, owing to something known as the ironic rebound effect, in which guilting ourselves over a bias actually further entrenches the bias into the unconscious brain. Instead of feeling guilty, she recommended focusing on recognizing and questioning. Is it true? How did it develop? Being mindful and questioning will go much further to undoing oppression than feeling guilty.
Contact theory and related practices can also be helpful in breaking down bias. This theory states that repeated meaningful positive contact with people from other groups can help change our perception of such groups from the Them label to the Us label. Meaningful contact means going beyond niceties, platitudes and small talk. Mentoring, friendships, dinner, and conversations are all good examples of meaningful contact.
Bhasin closed the speech with four simple must-do strategies for businesses looking to develop diversity and inclusivity practices:
- Change your behaviour: changing systems begins at your desk.
- Expand your circles and create meaningful shared experiences.
- Mentoring and sponsoring: consider who you are lifting up, and who is getting ignored.
- Work allocation: who is getting stretch work? Opportunities?
- Reviews and feedback: are you actively reaching out, or are you sticking to formal systems? Is the method effective?
- Reveal your personal side: the workplace benefits from authenticity. Authenticity encourages empowerment, which in turn encourages innovation and creativity. Push the normalization of differences by asking what you are masking or not sharing at work? Start and encourage sharing.
- Change the system: collaboration, innovation, advocacy, coaching. Find different ways of working.
For those looking for a tool to help them become aware of their biases, Bhasin recommends the Harvard Implicit Association Test, a free online resource that can help identify biases for the categories of age, skin-tone, sexuality, race, gender, weight and countries. These are a useful tool to identify unconscious beliefs that may be affecting how you treat others.