For the past few decades, companies have put substantial effort and major investment into creating diverse cultures. But why then do we still have so much inequality in senior leadership positions? Why do we still have slogans such as ‘me too’ or ‘black lives matter’? It should be common sense by now for everyone to support fairness, whilst respecting individual differences. The problem lies in that, whilst we believe and support equality, deep down we still hold those unconscious biases that make us stereotype people into groups. Negatively stereotyping people is not a harmless joke though, it can lead to serious consequences. In this blog, I want to address some of those negative effects caused by stereotype threat and the solutions that organisations should be working towards.
According to a study conducted at the University of Stanford, just knowing that a stereotype exists among a certain social group can negatively influence performance, even if the person in question doesn’t believe the stereotype to be true. This is even more applicable to individuals who are actually talented in the stereotyped task (i.e. women majoring in maths). The same goes for positive stereotyping, which can improve performance in white men.
Besides affecting performance, stereotyping can also lead to so-called ‘spotlight anxiety’ caused by the threat of being judged for being the only black person, for instance, in a meeting room.
Lastly, extended exposure to negative stereotyping can result in a person internalising the stereotype, triggering feelings of inferiority. Over time, this sense of inadequacy can slowly but surely become part of a person’s personality, diminishing their sense of confidence for good.
When stereotyping harms a certain group’s confidence and performance, and builds anxiety, this in turn creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that white men are confident and high achievers, whilst the rest are not.
Creating an inclusive workplace
The reality of the matter is that a striking 85% of western corporations accept that diversity in the workplace, be it gender, ethnicity/race, age, or experience, leads to better organisational results. Diversity is not just a desire, but a reality, given that we live in a world that is increasingly more interconnected. In the UK, out of the 30 million people employed, 12.9% are non-white. This figure is surprisingly proportional to the composition of the UK population, with exactly 12.9% of individuals coming from minority backgrounds. Where racial disparity strikes, is not in employment rates but in corporate hierarchical levels, where only 2% of the heads of FTSE 100 companies are from ethnic minorities.
Clearly some good work has been done in this space, but more needs to be done, and the strategies that got us here, probably will not get us to the next level. So, it’s time for companies to take a different approach towards equality and inclusion, going forward by:
Raising awareness: Not long ago, a client of mine mentioned that she doesn’t feel very welcome in the company where she works, partially because when the monthly team building activities are organised, they never include activities that are interesting for Asian women. So, she’s been skipping them altogether.
As Michelle King, the director of inclusion at Netflix, puts it “when colleagues or managers engage in marginalising behaviours, generally they tend to be aware of their actions, but they might not be aware of the detrimental impact their behaviour might have on someone else’s career”. Raising awareness, via robust HR programmes for all newcomers, managers and leaders, will help employees understand the mental load their actions can create on someone else. And the truth is that the vast majority of individuals do change their attitude once they are aware of the effects of their actions. HR should aim at bringing science to those training programmes about what equality is, what the barriers are, and what unequal and unfair practices are. These programmes should also look at providing specific mentorship, coaching and sponsorship opportunities for minority incomers and women. Moreover, managers should be trained on how to give feedback coupled with optimism about an employee’s potential and ensure that interesting and challenging work is distributed equally.
Setting the right goal: Lessons learned from the gender equality programmes put in place in many organisations should be applied to racial inclusion programmes. What happened after the ‘me too’ movement is that many organisations took the stance that they have to have 50/50 gender representation in their leadership roles, and some went as far as discriminating against men and only considering and promoting women for certain roles. A recent example of this is Joe Bidden committing to appoint a woman as vice president, should he win the upcoming US elections. Of course, having women in such visible and reputable positions is great news for society as a whole, but this promise automatically excludes all men from even aspiring to the role. Inclusion is not about gender or about race, it’s about creating a working culture that works better for everybody, which is a more effective way of tackling this issue. In order to do this, organisations need to focus on creating equal opportunities, rather than equal outcomes. When we focus on equal outcomes, then we’re certainly not giving equal opportunities. The downside here is that tackling representation is easier to measure and requires far less effort than resetting an organisation’s internal culture. Despite the difficulty, such change is possible through transformational programmes that specifically addresses unconscious bias, and where there is a clear commitment from the leadership team.
Tackling the root cause: It’s common knowledge that society is unequally distributed, where ethnic minority groups more often live in poorer and disadvantaged areas. Children growing up in middle-class or affluent families always have better opportunities because of the knowledge and connections they’re naturally exposed to. They have real-life role models to look up to and more people around them educating them and encouraging them to go for that ‘fancy’ company or role. This makes inequality in society, in effect, a birthmark, with very few individuals being able to progress from the circuit they ’belong’ to. I often encounter this when coaching business school students. Students who have taken out a loan, or are working part-time to finance their studies, are more likely to find themselves in a situation where they need to find a job, any job, straight after finishing their degree to start repaying their loan. Often, they target less ‘sexy’ jobs so they can get hired quickly, as opposed to applying for the high in-demand jobs, since they feel they simply won’t fit in and will be disadvantaged when compared with other applicants.
If organisations are really serious about creating an inclusive culture, they should look for ways to dismantle such loops. One good way of doing this is by collaborating with institutions like SEO London, who provide students from ethnic minority or low socioeconomic backgrounds with the opportunity to gain summer internships in the UK in a wide range of sectors. A scheme already used by the likes of Goldman Sachs, BlackRock and McKinsey. This can provide those students with the opportunity, connections and confidence that they otherwise lack.
So, to conclude, let’s acknowledge that these are not quick fixes, but rather long-term solutions which require time, effort and commitment. Starting is always scary, but once the ball gets rolling and both employees and consumers start linking the organisation with a fair workplace, that will sequentially lead to attracting a more diverse workforce. As the saying goes, when everyone is included, everyone wins.