This is the first of four articles inspired by the confluence of a personal mission to promote integrity in business and society and the outrage that drives the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) is the new paradigm of company direction and business management that have gradually gained currency over recent years. In 2019, the efforts of Greta Thunberg and her #SchoolStrike4Climate focused ESG attention on “E” for environment; in 2020, the gruesome videos of the killing of George Floyd and other Black citizens in the USA has directed the spotlight to the “S” for Social. Diversity and inclusion have become, unexpectedly for some, a subject that has to be addressed. In these articles I will seek to explain why it matters, why it is so difficult to resolve, point at the critical factors for success, and take a look at some of the efforts being made to end prejudice and discrimination in our organisations.
Uniqueness: For better or worse
I walked into the classroom where my new teacher greeted me with a polite smile and showed me to my desk. All eyes were on me. Not only was I the new boy, but I was also from a different world, of a different culture. One year later, the same thing happened, this time in my homeland. The classroom, the teacher, the eyes – I was different; a curiosity. I was a foreigner once again. I was learning lessons on exclusion that have stayed with me ever since.
Is it possible to know the meaning of inclusion before you have discovered the emotion of exclusion? What does it take to shake off the shackles of self-perception; the image we all have of ourselves that is the cornerstone of our self-esteem and confidence? Is it possible to practice empathy without having the courage to question your fundamental assumptions of justice and fairness? It can take a lifetime to learn the lessons of diversity and to master our handling of it. In my case, my first conscious lessons came at the age of twelve.
Moving to Mumbai was a big move. My father took up his diplomatic post and I started a new school. I recall stepping into the Cathedral School classroom. I was the only White boy (all the others were at boarding schools back in Europe). I suppose I was nervous; aren’t we always when we start a new school or job? I suppose I was excited. There was a lot to take in, including the misery of having to wear the prescribed black leather shoes under a scorching sun. At first, I did not feel any discrimination. Teachers and fellow pupils were welcoming and friendly, as Indians mostly are. They taught me the basics of cricket in the playground, although the reward for an extended innings was the increasing discomfort of burning hot feet on the asphalt pitch.
I settled in. I have no particular memory of any problems; except one. I recall one specific breaktime when it struck me – a eureka moment I have never forgotten – that everyone was too “nice”. Was it something someone said, about how being my friend made him more important in the eyes of others? That the apparent esteem that I enjoyed rubbed off on those associated with me. I knew my father had status; I never imagined I shared in that, or that others sought it from me. Yet, everyone was too friendly to me, the White son of a diplomat. It made me feel used, objectified, and excluded – I could not be friends with people who placed me on some form of pedestal. From that moment on, my trust had to be earned; I would forever be on my guard against flattery or ingratiation.
A year later, I returned to my hometown, Oslo in Norway. Coming from Mumbai, it was a different world, but I was back in my fatherland, with my people; or was I? At the start of the first lesson, the teacher asked me to say a few words about myself. I looked up, stood up, and pushed my chair under the desk. I explained who I was, then pulled the chair out and sat down. The class was silent. All eyes were on me, and all mouths were open in astonishment (at least that is the image I still have in my head). I had acted according to the custom practised at my last school, and in a moment, I was marked as “different”. I spoke Norwegian like my fellow students, I was blond and blue-eyed like most, but I was not “one of them”. I was a third culture kid. It was the start of two years of unwanted attention from the male “influencers” in the class. To cut a long story short, I love my country, but I could never fit in.
“So what?”. I am a White European in Europe, and I have learnt to be at ease with being different; others seem at ease with my being different. I would never lay claim to having suffered from systematic discrimination or institutionalised injustice. But I have experienced the indignation of being marginalised, gained the alertness born of being bullied, felt the exclusion from social circles I wanted to be a part of due to nothing more than different behavioural expectations. These moments did not last long, but I can, and do, recall them. Surely, we can all remember a time when we were on the outside, or in a vulnerable minority, feeling threatened. We, the privileged, dismiss them as temporary aberrations; but imagine for a moment if that was your every-day. For a large section of our society, it is.
Discrimination: a story of pride and prejudice
The combination of a social media blitz of US police and White violence towards Blacks, the hardship imposed on the underprivileged as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, and the concurrent availability of time to reflect on what our social priorities ought to be, has led to a sense of outrage – at police profiling and violence, at racial discrimination and institutional injustice. The #BlackLivesMatter movement of 2010 re-emerged in the US and found echo chambers in Europe and around the world. People are justifiably angry; people who are employees, customers, or even just citizens saying “Not on my patch/Not in my time”. Even the populist political backdrop is unusual. We have a US administration who want to “Make America Great Again”, to which we must ask, “Whose America?”. We have a nationalist government in the UK who wants to “take back control” and close borders to immigrants – a longing for days of empire perhaps, momentarily forgetting the inconvenience of legacy responsibility. Populists in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands to mention but a few, want to reassert what it means to be … what? … an exclusive stereotype of nationalists? Everywhere, the foreigner and the “other tribes” within society are seen as a threat rather than an opportunity. Some politicians are trying to show inclusive leadership, but the winds of exclusion and fear of change are strong.
Leadership: Blowing in the wind?
In the absence of clear and credible political leadership, corporate leaders are being called upon to clarify where they stand on #BLM. Most conclude that they have little choice in the matter – awaiting judgement by their stakeholders, they have no option but to “take the knee”. This time, however, once they have said all the right things, they find eyes still rest upon them in expectation of their next steps. The New York Times reported on US CEOs lining up to condemn racism, yet “many of the same companies have contributed to systemic inequality”. Amazon calls for the equitable treatment of Black workers, but are regularly accused of maltreating their low-skilled workers. The US NFL empathise with #BLM today, but just months ago it blacklisted Colin Kaepernick for “taking the knee” at its matches. L’Oreal now tweets that “Speaking out is worth it”, yet only three years ago fired their model, Munroe Bergdorf, for making waves against racism. There are just four Black executives in the Fortune 500. None of the global financial giants like Bank of America, JPMorgan or Wells Fargo has Black managers in their leadership groups; nor will you find them in Silicon Valley amongst FaceBook, Google or Microsoft. Even Exxon, who can boast two Black board members, have no Black executives. [ii]
Beautiful words penned by the brand management or public relations departments are heard today by sceptical ears – for corporates to feign indignation is a dangerous game. The Millennial and GenZ populations are rapidly taking hold of society, and they are as rigid in their expectations as they are unforgiving. To gain their trust, you have to prove your authenticity; if you lose their confidence, you will struggle to regain it. Brand management is no longer a marketing game; it is a manifestation of character.
Inclusive Leadership: The measure of the task
What then can corporates do to evidence and demonstrate their newly discovered commitment to racial equality? To tackle this, we first have to unveil the challenge;
- that discrimination against any minority results in the exclusion of potential, and
- that injustice undermines institutional trust and confidence.
Both carry high costs for society. How do we relate these concerns to the company?
To ask an individual if they are prejudiced against any particular group in society is like asking them if they consider themselves to be ethical. None of us readily act against the values that we, or our social grouping, hold. Just as ethics reflect the expected norms of behaviour of the social cluster to which it belongs, so prejudice, stereotype, myths and perception are rationalised by that grouping as just and fair. If “we” believe women have a “domestic gene”, then, of course, they belong in the kitchen instead of the shop floor. If “we” believe that ethnic minorities are lazy or promiscuous, then no wonder we do not employ such unreliable colleagues.
The rule of unconscious bias
Humans of all cultures work based on bias, extended into stereotype and prejudice. Our perception of the world is shaped by convention as taught to us by our family, schools, and eventually religions. They are reinforced by myths and stories that often are no more than unsubstantiated gossip. The only time we discard these conventions, “rules” or interpretations of the world around us, is when we observe behaviours that challenge our expectations or if we dare to explore where these ideas come from, or who they serve.
As a baby-boomer, I grew up watching adverts on TV that stereotyped women as housewives, films depicting Black people as uneducated, and mainstream media indicating homosexuals as somehow being deviant. Over time, my education, exposure, and observation of real-world behaviours destroyed these conventional stereotypes. I had to learn that people who are “different” are neither a threat nor less worthy than myself. What took longer to understand was that the convention and stereotype that I was learning to discard as an individual remained active as a silent protector of my privilege and relative advantage. No matter how enlightened I might believe I had become, the unquestioned learnt behaviours and assumptions of our society and institutions remained active in our group mentality.
Unconscious bias meant that women or people of colour were considered less emotionally capable or technically competent; less reliable or even less trustworthy. Assumptions like these close doors on education, careers and even platforms for voices to be heard. Furthermore, like a returning echo, such biases erode the confidence and self-esteem of those impacted by them, resulting in a downward spiral of self-fulfilling prophecies. Throughout my career, I rarely felt challenged by the talents of any coloured, female or LGTB+ competition, all of whom have either been absent or maintained a low profile to “survive” under the domination of what we now call “White privilege”. Only when I remind myself of what it feels like to be belittled, bullied or viewed as “not one of the locals”, can I recall the effort required to gain acceptance, and imagine what it means to have no “privilege” to wield in that struggle.
The metachrosis effect
Take Ursula Burns, the former Black CEO of Xerox USA and a member of the Exxon Board. She is a unique example of someone who won that struggle, yet she witnesses that “I dress like the one per cent. I drive like the one per cent. I wear watches and jewellery like the one per cent,” adding: “I worry every day if a policeman is near me. They look at me as first and foremost a threat to their place in society.”ii Like the chameleon, the “odd one out” frequently finds safety in adopting the behaviours and colours of those around them.
Escaping stereotype and what is sometimes termed “White (or male) blindness” to the potential of minorities is difficult. Under the illusion that the majority ethic or convention is somehow superior, we forget that the minority are deserving of our equal respect. Only the courageous few dare to challenge themselves by considering how the uniqueness of those who are different might bring new dimensions, knowledge and talents to our monochrome group attitudes. Those viewed as “different” risk being considered, at best, as someone who is a lesser version of ourselves or, at worst, as a threat to the status quo and ultimately, our “hard-earned” privileges.
The manager who believes a minority subordinate is “less” capable than his or her colleagues because their perception of a task or a solution is different to group norms, will supervise the individual’s performance with narrower definitions of expected performance and more frequent scrutiny. As a result of this scepticism and negative bias, it is less likely the manager will recognise the potential of alternative solutions. Consequently, feedback will tend to encourage adherence to the principle of “do as we have always done things around here”. The “diversity worker” will learn not to suggest a change or otherwise “rock the boat” and will simply adopt behaviours to resemble a clone of their majority colleagues; becoming a lesser version of themselves to the detriment of group potential.
The curse of convention
Unfortunately, most of us are too ready to succumb to the “wisdom of crowds”. If everyone else tells you that women are no good at engineering, or Blacks are not academic, or that Whites are outperformed in mathematics by Asians – do not be surprised if, like stress, it influences performance. Studies show that when told that their performance in a mathematics test is to be compared to that of Asian peers, White men are intimidated to the point that their performance deteriorates. Likewise, Black and female student scores fall when informed that a similar competitive comparison is going to take place. Perhaps most tragically, but also illuminatingly, the performance of Black students brought up in the USA is more affected than that of Black students of Caribbean origin. [iii]
As an undergraduate in the UK, I observed how many of my countrymen not only sought out other Norwegian students, but also kept themselves apart from British and other international students. Some even found it strange that I was more inclined to mix with British students (my natural “group” having just spent five years at a UK school) than to hang out with them. I was blond and blue-eyed like most of them, but I was still not “one of them”; once again I felt a “foreigner” to my own culture.
Consider then, if groups of “privileged” students, like birds of a feather, flock together, then how much higher the propensity to do so when you feel disadvantaged, discriminated against, looked down upon? Any individual that feels a degree of exclusion or threat will tend to seek out others they can relate to. Firstly, there is safety in numbers, but secondly, it is far more pleasant to circulate with people who understand, trust and support you. The shame of it is that the formation of such cliques is the enemy of inclusion and diversity management. The more women are encouraged to escape to “the powder room” or ethnic groups to assemble at their “own tables”, the less the greater community can benefit from the creative and collaborative impulses that drive innovation and productivity. How often have I not seen and heard the majority culture comment and ask why “those people” gather at “their” tables, rather than ask themselves why “they” do not find it natural to join them at the larger table? Defining people by their different origins only serves to create barriers between us; seeing people as individuals whose uniqueness adds to our collegial team is more likely to remove those barriers. It is at the core of our mission here to formulate inclusion policies for the benefit of the company, and society.
Of fear and snowflakes
When diverse social groups see their interests as different from “the others”, they will also perceive those “others” as competitors for scarce resources at best, or as a threat at worst. We’ve mentioned some of the negative behavioural consequences above. Another that is as persistently damaging as it is conflictual, is the anticipation of the negative and the absence of any assumption of goodwill. Perhaps it is how we were wired to deal with the threat of savage animals on the Savannah. On a dark path, our minds force us to imagine a stalker when we hear a twig snap behind us, or a shadow ahead looks like a mugger lying in wait. Likewise, when we receive a comment, a question, even a sideways glance, we tend to presume aggression, offence, arrogance or bias against us. Only in situations and conversations with people we highly trust do we apply the benefit of the doubt, the presumption of goodwill. A poorly worded question gets laughed away or challenged with a “what did you mean by that?”. If we do not trust our colleague, a dialogue of passive-aggression takes over and perpetuates distrust on both sides. If there is no trust, there is little sharing of knowledge, little innovation, and what potential there is for improved performance or social discourse dissipates.
Finally, as with any disenchanted individual who feels undervalued or unjustly treated, the “diversity candidate” will feel disengaged and justifiably seek friendlier pastures where their talent and potential might flourish, rather than be ignored or suppressed. We, the privileged and dominant majority culture, might note their departure and mutter about how these “snowflakes” didn’t have the grit to stay the course – yet, why should that accusation be directed solely at them? In such a situation, is it not the “privileged” who are the snowflakes, unable to question their own bias and prejudice and question how on earth they failed to integrate and develop the potential of those with ideas and perspectives different from our own?
When inclusion fails
We have then three consequences to our surreptitious unconscious bias:
- A suppression of talent and potential born of a lack of awareness of individual uniqueness and how social norms seek to control and suppress individuality.
- The mismanagement of diversified talent and the erosion of corporate culture in terms of collegial trust and organisational justice.
- The altered behaviour and suppression of self-expression enacted by minorities in response to their perceived threat of discrimination and the damage to the self-confidence and self-esteem of minorities experiencing negative bias in any situation.
We have a responsibility as individuals, board members, executives, managers, colleagues, and even as members of the broader society in which we live. We have to accept that “our way” is only the “old way”, and that new perspectives will redefine our horizons and the meaning of “the high way”. Until we learn this, we will never be able to define what the benefits of a diversity and inclusion policy are, let alone ever be able to implement one successfully.
To be continued …
In the second of this series of four articles, we shall explore the struggle that executives and organisations experience in seeking to confront and embrace their bias towards minority groups, overcome their overconfidence bias and their self-justifying perception of themselves. Why is it so difficult to break free of our prejudice? How do organisations and their members need to change their approach to be successful in the implementation of diversity and inclusion policies? How big is the challenge of the change required, and on whose shoulders should this burden be placed?
While writing this article, a debate surrounding the capitalisation of the “B” in Black when referencing African Americans and other Black communities has arisen. The New York Times has adopted the practice, a.o. The inference is that the term, when used in a racial context, like Irish, Norwegian or Asian, carries with it emotional and historic connotations that are too important to “trivialize” with a “b”. I am persuaded by the argument, but then also choose to use a capital “W” in White when highlighting the legacy of racial discrimination and prejudice.
[ii] “Corporate America has failed Black America” by George Etheridge, NYT, June 6, 2020
[iii] “Explaining the Black Education Gap” by John H. McWharter, Wilson Quarterly vol.24, issue 3 (2000)