Can Diversity Awareness be Taught?
Consultancy firms have been providing diversity training since the 70s, and their involvement in the business practices of small and big companies have only increased over the years: a sign of the importance that CEO and managers put on the values of diversity.
However, it is also true that many often use multiculturalism, diversity and gender equality as catchwords to attract candidate, or to raise the company’s profile, without really knowing how to apply them in their business strategies.
Simply having your HR department search and hire the most diverse (gender, culture, religion, language etc.) candidates out is not enough if then your company does not have the tools and strategies to allow a heterogeneous team to be able to work together.
The first big barrier to overcome is that most people are not aware of their inbuilt biases.
A couple of years ago, Harvard University collaborated in launching the non-profit organization Project Implicit. The organization’s aim is to research “implicit social cognition – thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control.”
The series of tests are designed to unveil unconscious preferences or prejudice based on sexuality, religion, skin-tones, disability and much more.
I love taking tests, especially psychological one, so on I went. Although I was not surprised that I had no preference between people with different skin-tones, I was shocked to find out that I had prejudices towards sexuality: in other words, I tend to associate certain jobs and fields with women and others with men. I was raised a feminist! This should not be happening!
In our context, this raises an important question: how can you train people to work, be inclusive and not discriminate others if they are not aware that they have inbuilt bias? They might think they are inclusive and understanding on a theoretical level, but their subconscious might lead them to take actions that go against it.
Moreover, can you lecture someone on the discrimination that a group faces when someone (like in my case) already thinks they are not doing anything to discriminate that group?
This last question has been studied in depth by sociologists and psychologists, the answer is no. No amount of case studies, research papers, sociological theories you throw at people will make them change their actions. They might discover realities they did not know and agree with the findings but this will not alter any subconscious prejudice they have towards another group of people.
The good news is that having people experience others’ realities and having them work together does slowly bring down the division barrier.
On a practical level, strategies that have been proven successful include:
- Creating workshops in which an homogenous group has to work together on different tasks – tackle a strategic problem, launch a new product or solve a discrimination case,
- Changing the traditional power structure. For example, if your company has an imbalance between men and women taking decisions, have a woman lead a team on a project.
- Offering training that are run by people from different cultures and backgrounds.
- Making sure that employees are aware of the creative, innovative and financial benefits that inclusiveness bring to the company.