It’s hardly news that we live and work in a diverse world, including gender, race and generational. However, according to Etosha Thurman, head of Global Business Network at SAP Ariba, over 70 percent of surveyed respondents said diversity and inclusion matters, but only 12 percent achieve company goals to address it. During one of the liveliest sessions I attended at the recent SAP Ariba Live event, Thurman shared how people can make diversity happen.
Take a step back to fight bias
Thurman’s jumping off point was a celebrated video called, “148 Bad Boys,” in which different couples entered a theatre crowded with tattooed bikers. Several exit the room pretty fast, except for one man and woman who find seats and get big cheers from the crowd. The point is, we all have a natural bias, whether it’s someone’s tattoos, weight, name, race, height, age, accent, religion, or other superficiality. It takes conscious effort to cut through our immediate bias.
“People have a natural reaction to coming into room full of bikers in a movie theatre,” said Thurman. “Biases shape our world view and expectations of others. In every moment, we receive 11 million bits of information. But we can only consciously process about 40 bits of information. Ninety-nine percent of our decisions happen unconsciously. We’re not aware that we’re making judgments and associations. We need to take time to reflect and assess on how we’re making decisions.”
Rethink automatic brain associations
Implicit association is woven into the fabric of our waking reality. Thurman used a couple of tests to show how this worked. In one exercise, many people in the audience had a tough time calling out “red” when the word red was actually the color blue on the screen in front of the room. In another, they had a similar hesitation shouting out what they saw when the screen paired the words “male” with “liberal arts.”
“We hesitate when the color doesn’t match the meaning of the letters in the word…because of the associations in our brain, we have to take time to reflect,” said Thurman. “This demonstrates how unconscious gender bias occurs…We’re inundated with ideas of what’s male, female, masculine and feminine. This plays a part in how we see the world.”
There’s a wealth of research on the impact of unconscious bias in our lives. A time-honored one is putting various names with different genders and ethnicities on the same resume. Thurman shared one example where resumes with women’s names or Arab-sounding last names receive significantly less responses. Bias also pops up on teams with mixed genders ─ one study showed project success was more often attributed to the men than the women. Even more chilling was the study Thurman recounted of how maternal death rates of African-American women are directly linked to bias among medical professionals who listen less to patients based on race.
Four ways to inclusiveness, diversity
Okay, we live in an imperfect world. But we have the opportunity to change our daily behaviors. Thurman urged the audience to question first impressions, challenge the basis of our decisions, seek input from others and give people around us the power to call out bias.
“Ask yourself why you feel a certain way…Question how we made that decision…and create an environment where that question can be accepted,” she said. “If we all commit to just one action of holding ourselves accountable, then we can help our companies, neighborhoods, communities [and] this world to be more accepting.”
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