Why leaders fail to tackle racial bias

Racial inequity is as bad for business as the gender gap, says scientist at the World Economic Forum

Why leaders fail to tackle racial bias

Combating racial inequity “isn’t a moral issue – it’s a profit & loss issue”, said a psychological scientist at this year’s World Economic Forum.

“As markets diversify, ignoring racial equity is going to leave the competition behind in the same way that lagging on green energy and gender equity has,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and president at Center for Policing Equity.

In his session, ‘The reality of racial bias’, he shared how leaders have been getting diversity and inclusion initiatives all wrong.

Goff acknowledged that racial bias is an “uncomfortable topic” to broach, but as has been done with things like the gender gap, it must be addressed in a rational, actionable manner to achieve genuine D&I.

He began by asking the audience to throw out the ‘vague’ definition of racism.

“The most common definition of racism is ‘racist behaviours stem from defective hearts and minds’,” Goff said. “And if you think about the way that you’re trying to solve this problem, you’ll hear it – ‘to fight racism, we have to combat ignorance’; ‘to fight racism, we have to stamp out hatred’.”

He takes issue with harping on racism as a ‘hearts and minds’ problem as it makes bias impossibly hard to solve – including at the organisational level.

“When we fixate on trying to change behaviours, we end up distracted by trying to rehabilitate potentially racist characters and ignoring the accumulation of harms happening to vulnerable communities right in front of us,” he said.

“By defining the problem as a ‘hearts and minds’ [issue], we end up being distracted trying to fix racist people instead of fixing racist outcomes.”

READ MORE: Why the ethnicity pay gap is even more complicated than gender

Impact of racial bias
And research has shown that the impact of racial bias is far-reaching. A recent study by Deloitte found that one in three professionals had witnessed and/or experienced workplace bias around race and ethnicity.

When talking about workplace bias in general, Deloitte found that it even impacts those who are not directly affected.

Of those who felt that they experienced or witnessed bias:

  • 68% said bias negatively impacted their productivity
  • 84% said it affected their happiness, confidence and well-being
  • 70% believed it impacted how engaged they were at work

Worryingly, more than 60% of respondents felt that bias remains present at their organisations. What’s worse, whether they’ve simply witnessed or personally experienced it, one in three react by ignoring the bias.

Most, however, choose to confide in a colleague (34%). Others confide in their supervisors (31%) or address the situation in a variety of ways: speaking up in the moment (29%), later on to the person who was biased (24%), or later to the person who experienced the bias (23%).

On a positive note, Deloitte’s study found that almost all (92%) respondents see themselves as allies at work. This means they do want to support their colleagues from different backgrounds and experiences – they just don’t know how.                                                    

READ MORE: Is it impossible to overcome hiring bias?

‘Actionable’ solution
The above may be just one study on workplace bias, but Goff is certain that organisations can acquire enough data to show the disparities that employees simply “don’t feel good about”.

Measuring sentiment on the ground and getting real numbers on what’s going on is a vital first step to tackling bias, he asserted.

“How many industries talk a good game about equity, diversity and inclusion, and measure nothing?” he said.

“I can’t tell you the number of universities that have asked me to show up and look at their strategic diversity policy, which sits right next to their capital campaign with all its leading metrics on fundraising and success.

“But then there’s their strategic diversity policy and it says, ‘We at ‘blank university’ are committed to diversity’ – and that is the end of their strategic policy. No metrics, no sentiment survey, no nothing. If that is how you think about ‘doing diversity’, you’re not helping.”

The next step is to determine an objective outcome and work backwards. From experience, what he’s done in his field involves the following:

  • Identifying and acknowledging the bias
  • Getting data to find out the extent of the problem
  • Listening to feedback from those affected
  • Working towards an objective outcome

“If we want our organisations to reflect our values, we should measure our values,” he said. “We’ve done an exceptionally poor job of that when it comes to inclusion and equity.”

He admitted that there has been progress in measuring “some elements of gender…some elements of race” but there hasn’t been a “real call for global leadership” on bias.

“If you care about racial bias in the organisations you run, measure the racial disparity outcomes,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that when you find them that you’re bad people.

“Sometimes, we don’t ask the question when we’re scared of the answer – so stop being scared of the answer and measure the outcomes.”

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