I’m heartened by the growing interest and investment in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in industry and academia. Rather than just being the latest workplace fad, DEI is increasingly a strategic imperative, so much so that the chief diversity officer (CDO) has become an essential part of the leadership of multinational companies and college campuses nationwide.
 
The rational? Employees and students who feel valued for their uniqueness and a sense of belonging to the team — whatever the team — are mentally and emotionally liberated to learn and contribute at the highest levels, whether in a workplace, school or government agency.
 
Catalyst, a global nonprofit that works with leading companies to build inclusive workplaces, found that workers who feel a sense of belonging thrive because they avoid paying an “emotional tax” for chronically being on guard against intentional and unintentional humiliating words or deeds.[1]
 
The Emotional Tax and Microaggressions
 
Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce, M.D., called the occurrences that trigger the emotional tax “microaggressions,” the intentional and unintentional verbal, behavioral or environmental humiliations that communicate hostility or prejudice against an individual or a group. Dr. Pierce discovered that microaggressions take a physical toll, and later research based on his findings even suggested that repeated microaggressions can shorten one’s lifespan![2]
 
Helping organizations recognize and remove these commonplace verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities is essential for creating inclusive workplaces. And this begins with identifying and challenging implicit biases.
 
‘Implicit Bias Is an Equal Opportunity Virus’[3]
 
The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity[4] at The Ohio State University, which annually reviews the latest research on implicit bias, defines implicit bias this way:
 
The attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Activated involuntarily, without awareness or intentional control. Can be either positive or negative. Everyone is susceptible.”
 
Our implicit biases are mental representations formed by the oftentimes distorted messaging we receive about different groups of people based on our cultural orientations, or what psychologist Mahzarin Banaji calls, “the thumbprint of our culture.” Most of these beliefs are not perceptible. Only 2 percent of our emotional cognition is conscious. In other words, we’re generally not explicitly prejudiced. (At least most people wouldn’t publicly admit to being racist or homophobic.) Rather, our biases are typically left unchallenged below our conscious, and oftentimes they’re diametrically opposed to our explicit beliefs. As stated above, everyone is susceptible!
 
Why Does It Matter?
 
Our implicit biases play out in our words and actions. For example, studies have shown they predict differential grades given to black and white students by teachers, and the rates at which children with disabilities are disciplined in schools. Other studies show implicit biases can predict college admissions decisions. And still others link unconscious bias to hiring and promotion decisions. It’s even been found to affect the accuracy of strikes and balls called by Major League baseball umpires![5]
 
Beyond the deleterious effect on individuals (through microagressions), these beliefs can have lasting effects on institutions such as governments, schools, businesses and the criminal justice system, leading to systemic structural inequality. A troubling study found that police shootings are higher in communities with implicit bias against blacks.[6]
 
Debiasing Our Reptilian Brain
 
Humans, like animals, evolved to identify and avoid threats to ourselves and our progeny. Our drive for self-preservation, neurologically located in the portion of our brain associated with fear and threat, if unchecked, causes us to react reflexively when it’s triggered, that is, automatically, without awareness.
 
The great news is that biases can be unlearned. When we’re made aware of our biases, we can learn to reflectively respond to stimuli in a deliberate, effortful and conscious way.
 
It’s no surprise, then, that the first step toward debiasing our classrooms and workplaces is to raise awareness of our biases. Here, encouraging managers, faculty and other institutional leaders to take the Implicit Association Test (IAT)[7] is key. I took the IAT about 10 years ago, and I still check myself when the reptile in me wants its say.
 
The Path to Inclusion Begins With Diversity
 
Building on the results of the IAT, a second key strategy to debiasing is to increase intergroup contact, which is why diversity matters. Increasing the representation of dissimilar groups in the workplace and the classroom raises the prospect of meaningful interactions between individuals. This contact has a dual benefit: it reduces bias and fosters innovation. Why? Because, according to researcher Scott Page, “People are forced to think differently and harder when they’re around identity diverse people.”[8]
 
Inclusion: Everyone Gets to Contribute to the Playlist
 
Robert Sellers, Ph.D., the CDO of the University of Michigan, likens diversity to being invited to the dance. Equity, he suggests, means everyone gets to dance. But an inclusive party, Dr. Sellers metaphorically notes, occurs when everyone gets to contribute to the playlist!
 
In the end, everyone should thrive in schools and the workplace, not just for personal gain but to be equipped and unleashed to solve complex social and technical problems confronting our very existence. To do so, we need to unlock the best minds to innovate and co-create solutions to relieve suffering where it occurs, raise standards of living, build bridges of opportunities between communities and improve the quality of life of communities and nations around the world.
 
Removing bias — both explicit and implicit, at individual and institutional levels — is the keystone of inclusive environments that liberate everyone in the community to bring their best, most authentic selves to school and work. Then we’ll realize how symphonic our true greatness can be.


[1] “Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace,” 2018. Dnika J. Travis & Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon.
[2] https://www.nationalreview.com/2015/01/harvard-study-suggests-microaggressions-might-make-people-die-sooner-katherine-timpf/
[3] Dasgupta, N. (2013). Implicit Attitudes and Beliefs Adapt to Situations: A Decade of Research on the Malleability of Implicit Prejudice, Stereotypes, and the Self-Concept. Advances in Experimental Psychology. 47, pp. 233–279.
[4] http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/
[5] State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review, 2015. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.
[6] https://wamu.org/story/17/06/05/the-thumbprint-of-the-culture-implicit-bias-and-police-shootings/#.XHHDx-hKjD4
[7] https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/. The IAT is a free online tool hosted by Harvard University’s Project Implicit. The test can be taken privately.
[8] Page, S.E.; Lewis, E.; & Cator, N. (2017). The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

I’m heartened by the growing interest and investment in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in industry and academia. Rather than just being the latest workplace fad, DEI is increasingly a strategic imperative, so much so that the chief diversity officer (CDO) has become an essential part of the leadership of multinational companies and college campuses nationwide.