Why aren’t nonprofits seeing more gains in diversity? Because we keep trying to cure the symptom instead of the disease. The symptom is a homogenous workforce. The disease is out-grouping.
In previous “Peeling the Onion” blogs on NonProfit PRO, we have written about the power of “in-groups” and “out-groups.” Simply put, people define themselves in terms of social groupings and are quick to diminish others who aren’t a part of them. Those who share some defining characteristic(s) are part of our in-group, and those who don’t are in our out-group.
We humans evolved to evaluate people regarding their in-group/out-group status. Ninety-eight percent of our ancestors never saw as many people in their entire lifetimes as we would see walking through a (pre-COVID-19) airport. Locals, and people who looked like you, were safe; those who didn’t tended to trigger caution.
Through the process of evolution, this tendency became unconscious, what we call an “unconscious bias.” That’s why now, conscious and deliberate processes are required to break the tendency to retreat into our in-groups — white/nonwhite, male/female, young/old, rich/poor, rural/urban, Democrat/Republican, public/private — the list goes on and on.
The most well-defined and well-populated in-groups are built on things like sex, race, religion and geography. You know, the things that cause wars. Creating a diverse workplace means that the people doing the hiring have to overcome their personal in-group preferences. It’s difficult, especially since defaulting to preferring someone from one’s in-group is mostly unconscious.
This has a huge impact on leadership structures. Let’s look at the CEO level. Nonprofit boards are responsible for recruiting, hiring and firing CEOs. Research has shown that board members tend to hire people who are like themselves. Boards are more likely to hire female CEOs when some board members are women. And an important benefit of having a diverse nonprofit board is that those organizations bring in more donations.
The solution here seems so simple — get more women board members. But it’s not simple. In fact, it’s so difficult that the state of California last year passed a law that mandates that publicly-held corporations are required to have at least one woman on their board. That a law must be passed somewhere should be a clue for us that this isn’t a quick fix; or that it will happen naturally.
It would be nice to think that we can conquer our biases by knowing we have them. Biases are pernicious because they are unconscious — they happen completely outside of our conscious awareness. The result? Most people believe they are unbiased. A Carnegie Mellon University study showed that only one out of 661 adults said they are more biased than the average person. Only 0.15% of people believe they are more biased than average.
One strategy for overcoming unconscious bias is to create interactions intentionally. Gail Roddie-Hamlin, a veteran of the Alzheimer’s Association and the American Cancer Society, is a long-time champion for a diverse workforce. She said, “Don’t be a tourist in terms of building relationships with diverse and ethnic people and communities.”
What she means is, (to use our language) “get out there and in-group with diverse people.”
Roddie-Hamlin goes on to describe specific methods for increasing diversity and expanding one’s in-group: “I believe there is an opportunity, in this situation and others like it, to reach out in majority African American or Hispanic/Latino service organizations and Chambers of Commerce, professional women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, historically black colleges or universities (HCBUs), barber/beauty shops and more. We can use social media platforms, virtual-to-meet ‘introductions,’ online courses, events, activities, web searches and by asking someone you know!”
A survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review in November 2019 found that when employees ranked the efficacy of diversity interventions, there was consensus about getting back to basics and rooting out bias. The top-ranked interventions included robust, well-crafted and consistently-followed anti-discrimination policies; effective training to mitigate biases and increase cultural competency; and removing bias from evaluation and promotion decisions.
Today, according to the Harvard Business Review, over 95% of companies with at least 1,000 employees have instituted programs to increase diversity and inclusion within their ranks. Having policies in place is a first step for nonprofits to create and sustain diversity. But it’s still all too easy for nothing to happen.
Sometimes it stares at you in the face. Currently, the NFL has 70% Black players and three Black head coaches out of 32 NFL franchises. This kind of thing is easy to miss; then you start looking, and you see it everywhere.
What’s the path forward? Look to California — it got it right. Policies are good, but laws are better. A society decides what its norms should be, the rules by which we agree to live. Unconscious motivations are potent influences on our behavior, but we don’t need to follow them.
Creating laws to overcome in-group bias in the pursuit of diversity speaks to our better instincts, not those that hold us back.
This content was originally published here.