It has been understood for some time that we are all of us prone to unconscious biases which, unless we are unusually self-aware, affect the decisions we make. For example, if we are in a position to appoint or promote people in a work context, we tend to favour those with whom we unconsciously identify.
Indeed, the phenomenon is regularly cited as one of the key explanations for the ongoing underrepresentation of women and minority groups in leadership positions. White men tend to promote white men.
But surely things are getting better, aren’t they? Albeit slowly, female and minority representation at the highest levels is increasing, isn’t it?
Well, yes … but. As reported in a recent article by Aneri Pattani, research undertaken by David R. Hekman, Stefanie Johnson, Maw Der Foo and Wei Yang indicates that we can’t just assume we’re on an inevitable trajectory towards increased diversity in the workplace. It appears that despite all the supportive and much-welcomed words that are written on the subject, leaders are not rewarded for exhibiting diversity-valuing behaviour. Worse than that, female and ethnic minority leaders can actually be penalised for doing so.
In other words, the very people who should be the most obvious advocates for greater diversity – “If I did it, so can you” – are deterred from doing so because they are likely to be criticised for it. Or at least, as the research suggests, suffer from worse performance ratings. Unconscious biases run deep indeed.
So where does this leave us? Is diversity something that can only be championed by white men? (An idea that is both deeply ironic and deeply patronising at the same time.) No, of course not. But it’s an important reminder of how important it is to think about how we communicate the message and, equally, how important it is that everyone (including the white males) get behind the message.