Diversity’s Dirty Secret

It’s fairly common knowledge at this point that businesses and organizations like to think of themselves as committed to diversity, and yet far too many diversity efforts fail. I’ve written in the past about how one of the reasons this happens is by leaving inclusion out of the equation (see Why Diversity and Inclusion Efforts Fail). But there’s an even more basic reason why diversity and inclusion are hard to achieve in the organizational setting – as human beings, we are hard-wired to be biased! That’s the bold and alarming statement of diversity expert Howard Ross, whose latest book, Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives, tackles diversity’s dirty secret head-on.

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Thanks to magnetic resonance imagery, we know a lot more about how the brain works than we used to. The limbic system of the brain includes the amygdala, the hippocampus, the hypothalamus, and the cingulate gyrus. When you see something, it is picked up by the amygdala and sent to the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part that says, “Oh, this reminds me of…” whatever that may be – an association in your subconscious mind that is going to trigger what to do in this situation. Then the hypothalamus send that signal of what to do and the cingulate gyrus gets the message out to the body. So this is the sequence of events that occurs when you’re driving along the highway and suddenly the brake lights of the car in front of you come on. This sequence happens in a split second and you apply the brakes in your car to avoid hitting the car in front of you. It’s all largely unconscious and based on past associations.

The thing to understand is that we go through this exact same sequence with any stimuli that come our way, including other people. It goes back to our ancient ancestors whose very survival depended on making rapid judgments about who is a friend and who is a foe. And in a survival context, a false positive (the foe turns out to be a friend) is a whole lot safer than a false negative (the friend turns out to be a foe). Yes, we all want to promote diversity and minimize negative bias, but to act on these subconscious biases is as perfectly natural as breathing. It’s how we make decisions, including potentially do-or-die decisions, each and every day. But because our culture has determined that all bias is somehow bad, we demonize it, even though we need it to survive! And because it’s been demonized, we suppress our biases, effectively relegating them to the unconscious, where of course they still continue to exert their influence, perhaps even more powerfully.

It is only after the auto-sequence takes place that our “rational” mind (the prefrontal cortex) can take a more thoughtful approach to what just happened, but what the rational mind more often than not does is rationalize the behavior we just exhibited. So when you snap-judge a person on the street as potentially unsafe, your rational mind is then going to rationalize why you made that judgment. All of this helps to explain why bias is still so rampant in many of the very areas we’ve been working hard to eliminate it. It also helps explain why we still see so many tragic incidents like the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Besides such unfortunate scenarios as the Trayvon Martin case, the real-world impacts of unconscious bias are far-reaching. Take, for example, the fact that more people die during hurricanes with female names than male names. The key to understanding this bizarre phenomenon is in understanding people’s unconscious bias towards gender. When a hurricane comes along with a female name, people subconsciously think of it will be gentler or less violent, and therefore end up not taking the precautions they should take.

We all have our unconscious biases, and we can’t help it. What we can do is recognize them for what they are, stop feeling guilty about them, stop demonizing and suppressing them, and identify when they are having a negative rather than positive impact on us and then do something about it. This opens up the way for diversity and inclusion programming that is not only very practical, but possibly very effective in reducing the negative impacts of bias that will help companies leverage their D&I efforts into greater success. My next article on this topic will apply the concepts directly to the talent management process.

February 1, 2016   Updated :November 16, 2016   bias, diversity, inclusion   

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