Mr. X interviewed Ms. Y for a leadership role. He was impressed with her confidence and intelligence. He concluded the interview with these words, “Ms. Y. we are keen to have you onboard.”

Ms. Y smiled: “Thank you very much, Mr. X.” And then Mr. X continued: “In any case, it’ll be great to have the fairer gender make decisions shoulder-to-shoulder with the men in the top rungs.”

Ms. Y cringed in her seat.

What just happened? Mr. X was visibly impressed with Ms. Y. He was impressed with her intelligence. He believed her presence would make the organization’s decision-making more effective. The recruitment for leadership roles had a strong commitment to diversity. When he referred to Ms. Y as “the fairer gender”, he didn’t say it with a bad intention, nor was he unaware that men could also be fair.

So why did he refer to Ms. Y as the fairer gender giving irrelevant attention to her sex and complexion? The answer is simple. Without even realizing it, Mr. X harbored an unconscious bias.

What’s the consequence?

Mr. X’s unconscious bias will get in the way of his good intentions and keep him from building an authentic relationship with Ms. Y who he perceives as different from him.

Unconscious biases are more common than we think

Unconscious biases are omnipresent, across genders, geographies and cultures. If we objectively study our everyday thoughts, all of us will find a host of unconscious assumptions at play. After all, diversity in thought is not something everyone grows up with. Many come from homes where women are assumed to perform certain roles, transgender people are talked about in a certain way, exposure to other cultures is limited and people from different regions are called by nicknames.

Since we all carry these imprints of our childhood, it’s not realistic to expect adult professionals to practice diversity without breaking out of mindsets that have calcified the contours of the minds.

The impact of such unconscious assumptions is that your organization’s most immaculately framed policies defining the action around diversity, unfortunately, fall flat. If you are not an inclusive person by thought, if you see people through a colored lens, if you are not respectful of opposing views, then the bias will raise its head in your conversations and empathy you show towards your colleagues.

But we’re making good progress

Yes, India Inc. is battling mindsets and making progress. Specific appointments like Chief Equality Officer and Chief Diversity Officer have been made. Organizations now understand diversity beyond gender to being open to people across the world, religions, age, abilities, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Organizations have also understood that diversity is not only good for the community but a business strategy too. Taking advantage of differences is what leads to an open environment where innovation and creativity thrive. Teams with members from different socio-economic backgrounds, personalities, skillsets and experiences always perform better than monotone teams from a common background.

What can be done to internalize diversity in thought?

At an organizational level, two things can be done. One, create opportunities for teams to engage with people from diverse backgrounds. Pose challenges to confront the tendency to bond only with those who are “like us.” There is a greater likelihood to uncover long-held biases when you spend time with the very community you may be biased against. Volunteer for programs led by transgender people, have team lunch at cafés run by survivors of violence, organize workshops led by people with disabilities whether from within or outside the organization.

Two, within office walls, plan exercises that help employees reflect on their personal experiences and uncover how their hidden biases were formed. Introduce people to some incredible narratives in this area via books, Ted Talks, and Podcasts. Self-awareness is the first step to control misinformed reactions.

The future lies in working hard at identifying blind spots and actively instilling sensitivity. It’s a long road but one that will ensure your diversity policies come alive just as you intended them to. Only then will diversity in action become the new norm.

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