Warning: I’m just going to dive right in here, no gentle preamble or stories about silly things the boys did.
The issues around inclusion and unconscious bias (as well as just basic exclusion based on gender, race, social position, education, religion, and orientation or identity) are a bit of a bug bear for me. From the little layers of expectations that we lay on our children, to the way we treat each other at work and socially.
I’m also aware that the whole problem of unconscious bias is that its unconscious, so I’m as much guilty of it as anybody – so that I’ve been surprised by gentleness where I didn’t expect it. In our house, we try to do as much as we can to prevent the boys from inheriting the pigeon-holed expectations that society too-often applies to people, even through the medium of watching football on TV.
For more on unconscious bias, you could start with the Office of Diversity and Outreach at University of California, San Francisco, for example.
Micro-inclusions and training
I’m very lucky to work for a company that takes inclusion and diversity seriously. We have an internal Lean In circle with regular meetings attended by people from HR and a decent (though not 50% and certainly not proportional to the staffing gender distribution) attendance from male colleagues. We also have a Diversity and Inclusion community. Both those groups are working for and achieving real change.
Even better, a few weeks ago, our company ran a week of sessions aimed at developing current and future leaders and broadening people’s awareness of inclusion issues and providing them with tools to combat unfairness. I attended a few sessions; on micro-inclusions, outward mindsets, fair feedback, and self-advocating for the journey you want in life.
Some were better than others. The comment in the outward mindsets session that “anyone without mental illness could develop and outward mindset” rankled. That statement implied that anyone with “mental illness” couldn’t be outward looking and thus would be a failure according to the goals of the session. I disagree strongly, “mental illness” can include so many problems, from anxiety and depression to personality disorder or schizophrenia. I’m sure I have colleagues impacted by many of those issues, whether openly or in private, and the thought that the trainer might write them off purely on one aspect of their lives goes against the very values that the initiative was promoting. (No, I didn’t disapprove in silence, I provided feedback after the session and highlighted that issue with HR too.)
That glitch aside, I’m proud to work for a company that cares about inclusion and diversity and that makes concerted efforts to level the playing field for those traditionally overlooked or unfairly judged.
Other sessions were really inspiring; helping us to recognise micro-aggressions and providing us with tips on how to avoid them.
Have you ever witnessed, experienced, or perpetrated a micro-aggression?
I know I’ve done all three. Pretty much everyone has. If you think you haven’t, you’re wrong.
I once wrote a blogger award post and asked a question about “your significant other”. Afterwards, I realised that this excluded anyone who doesn’t have a partner in their life. I would have done better to ask about “the most important other person in your life” – that could be a parent, partner, sibling, child or friend.
What other examples of micro-aggressions are common:
- Surveys or forms that only provide binary response options to gender questions.
- Continuous mispronunciation of someone’s name.
- Speaking over others, or preventing a natural conversation by steering participants.
- Praise making it clear that expectations were low. Like “wow that was great, I didn’t know you had so much experience with this” or “you’re so articulate” or “your English is surprisingly good”.
- Making comments that reflect old fashioned attitudes to mental health: “that presentation was crazy” or “don’t ask so-and-so, their ideas are mad”.
- Comments on age, whether youth or older, impacting knowledge or competency. Such as “ask that person, they’ll know everything about social media” about someone relatively young in years or “I’m 10 years your senior so you have no right to tell me how to do this” (that’s a real one that I had directed at me).
- Referring to someone as he or she when they’re in the room, expressing their opinions for them: “well, she was trying to say….” (I’ve done that, sorry).
- Making any reference to hormones whatsoever. Apparently, after a meeting ended while I was pregnant with large boy, a comment was made that the pregnancy hormones were making me stroppy – because I’d spoken clearly and with determination, a style that would have gone unnoticed if a man had used it.
There are many more examples I’m sure. Have you been subject to one of these? Or perhaps you realise that you’ve said or done something that excluded someone?
Broad unconscious exclusion
Unconscious bias isn’t only something that affects individuals. Sometimes companies behave or organize themselves in ways that unintentionally exclude a proportion of their workforce.
Apart from all the obvious gender-related problems and the controversial topic of positive discrimination for hiring, some things that deserve consideration are:
- Timing meetings so that employees who are parents can attend.
Those sessions that run from 4pm until 6pm are really tricky – how do we pick our children up from school with a meeting like that? Sure a partner could do pick up, but there are plenty of single parents or families where one parent works away or in shifts. If its essential to run a meeting in a particular slot (time zone constraints for example), it would be great to make it clear that it isn’t mandatory and make a recording available later.
- Supporting remote workers.
I’m sure many companies have made huge changes and improvements to their remote working support over the course of 2020. However, it will be important when workers go back to their offices that those improvements remain in place to allow permanent home workers to continue to benefits. There might be cases where on-site meetings aren’t accessible to remote workers, leaving them feeling left out and unimportant or where VPN bandwidth might not provide enough performance. Hopefully technical issues will remain solved, organizational ones however ought to be considered even when offices fill back up.
- Time zone issues.
There’s not much we can do about the shape of the world or the way it spins. But we can organize ourselves to include those in distant time zones, alternating between early and late meetings so that everyone is equally impacted, for example. When its really not possible, recording meetings and making sure they’re available is second best.
If teams are made up of people with different first languages and different competencies with common languages, it’s important to be patient with everyone and make sure that each participant has the chance to express themselves, even if their language skills aren’t perfect.
What you can do practically
So we know that there’s bias, unconscious or otherwise, everywhere; leading to exclusion and disruption, reduction in productivity, inefficiency and trivialising or undervaluing individuals. What can we do about it?
First and foremost, be aware. You need to know that you are unconsciously biased. That’s the whole problem, its unconscious, we aren’t doing it on purpose and we mostly don’t realise. So, try to be self-aware and pay attention to your actions. Before you act, ask whether your words or behaviour might unconsciously favour or punish someone.
Of course it’s not that easy, so here are some examples of practical things you can do:
- Ask for help with pronunciation of names that are unfamiliar to you. Try to get it right and put it into practice. Your example will help others to do the same.
- Don’t interrupt. Come on folks, we can all have a bit more patience and wait for someone to stop speaking before getting our point over too. Active listening is not only respectful and considerate, but hey you might also learn something. Imagine how it must feel to be talked over all the time, eventually you’d stop trying to speak up and you’d feel ignored, unimportant and unvalued.
- Multi-language support. If only one person in a meeting, no matter how big, doesn’t speak the language of the majority but there’s another option that everyone can use, use that.
I work with a team based in Paris, where everyone there and I speak French. But we have one person join from Germany who’s often late. We’ll start meetings in French but the very second he joins we switch to English, if not mid-sentence at least half way through someone giving their status update. Its brilliant to witness.
- Make it company policy that all internal and external forms, surveys, and questionnaires (from hiring to gathering internal feedback to customer satisfaction checks) use inclusive language and questions – considering gender identity, race, neurodiversity. Maybe even extend that to have everyone include their pronouns in their email signatures. I’ve noticed a lot of people doing that where I work, it feels good to know for sure someone’s gender identity and I hope it helps non-binary people to be comfortable including theirs.
- When you’re planning or cancelling meetings consider timings and impact. If you cancel a meeting with people 8 time zones behind so that it’s at 6 am for there, cancelling 2 hours before the meeting isn’t helpful. By the time they get up and find the cancellation, well they already got up early and could have had another couple of hours sleep. Time differences are hard to navigate, but we can try to plan further ahead and give people enough notice to adjust their plans if necessary.
- If you’re designing a website or any web-based tool for either customers or colleagues to use, consider accessibility. Can the fonts, colour scheme and contrast be adjusted to make it easier for people with visual differences to read? Is it compatible with a screen-reader? Do videos have voice overs as well as captions?
What did I miss? Who did I unconsciously exclude in this post?
What do you or your company do that supports a sense of belonging for everyone?
- Lean In – Lean In is a global community dedicated to helping women achieve their ambitions.
- Inclusion definition from Your Dictionary – Inclusion is defined as the state of being included or being made a part of something.
- Inclusive Design Toolkit by the University of Cambridge – Every design decision has the potential to include or exclude customers. Inclusive design emphasizes the contribution that understanding user diversity makes to informing these decisions, and thus to including as many people as possible. User diversity covers variation in capabilities, needs and aspirations.
- Ethics App from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
- W3C Accessibility – The Web is fundamentally designed to work for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, location, or ability. When the Web meets this goal, it is accessible to people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive ability.
- 4 Excellent Examples of Diverse and Inclusive Company Cultures from Emplify – While there are plenty of companies doing diversity right, these ones really stood out for their focus on employee engagement.