Translating Research Into Action On Diversity And Inclusion

Having worked in publishing for over 20 years in a variety of roles, Dr Nancy Roberts founded social enterprise Business Inclusivity in 2017 to support publishers in thinking about how diversity and inclusion can solve business problems and deliver a sustainable industry. In 2018 Nancy will be launching a new startup, Umbrella, which will bring Big Data to bear on issues of diversity and inclusion.

In this blog, Nancy discusses how research has the potential to help businesses make significant steps to becoming more diverse and inclusive. 

In the wake of the gender pay scandals at the BBC, racism at Starbucks, and the continued spotlight on the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, companies are faced with increasing social pressure to act to make their organizations more diverse and inclusive. We also know that companies with more racial and gender diversity outperform their competition; in the UK a 10% increase in gender diversity on a corporate board correlates to a 3.5% increase in EBIT

However, despite this media attention, change has been slow to arrive. A report published by the Fawcett Society in April 2018 entitled ‘Sex and Power 2018’ has shown that women remain severely under-represented in almost all positions of power in public life in the UK. The report tells us that only 32% of MPs are women as are only 8% of FTSE 100 CEOs. When it comes to racial diversity the picture is even worse, in academia HEFCE data shows that only 9% of professors are from a BAME background and BAME students are statistically much less likely to achieve a First.

It’s clear, then, that a lack of diversity continues to be a major challenge for businesses, and in the rush to be seen to be acting many organizations have launched large-scale Unconscious Bias Training. Such initiatives are costly and time-consuming, but yet are unlikely to deliver any noticeable change in organizational culture. A study released in April by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission shows that ‘the evidence for UBT’s ability effectively to change behaviour is limited,’ and potentially it can even backfire causing biases to become further embedded.

Businesses need support in identifying ways in which they can really make a difference to organizations; rather than leaping onto a Diversity bandwagon they need to look hard at what they are trying to achieve and how social sciences research can really add value to this process. Here are some recent research outputs which I believe could help businesses really make significant change in this area.

As Bernard J. Luskin, Ed.D. noted: 
‘The amygdala is the “emotional” center of the brain that reacts to fear and threat and other senses. Scientists have found a measurable correlation between amygdala activity and implicit racial bias. The point (...) is that research shows a visual brain response even though an individual may not be conscious of it.’

The good news, though, is that neuroscience can also provide some answers to this conundrum. Dr Lynda Shaw puts it this way: ‘The neuroplasticity of the organ is such that we actually restructure it depending upon what we are exposed to, thus changing our behaviour. This means that by working in an environment of inclusion we become more inclusive.’ In other words, diversity and inclusion can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Translating this into actionable business initiatives, then, it seems apparent that if an organizational culture condones, either explicitly or implicitly, unconscious bias, then training is unlikely to deliver a noticeable change. Conversely organizations which make explicit efforts to be inclusive are likely to be more effective in tackling bias.

One of the ways businesses can make explicit and actionable steps to being more inclusive is to review the language used in their job postings. In their article ‘Evidence That Gendered Wording in Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality’ Gaucher, Friesen and Kay demonstrate that certain words have “male” or “female” perceptions attached to them, and that the language of job postings can have a definite impact on recruitment: ‘When job advertisements were constructed to include more masculine than feminine wording, (...) women found these jobs less appealing’. Statistically, then, roles advertised using words like “ambitious” or “confident” are already, by their language, encoding bias and making it less likely that women will even apply, never mind be selected. Similarly, research from March 2017 shows that ethnic minority job seekers who felt they met a requirement described in a job advert, decided not to apply when it was worded as a personality trait not a behaviour.

It’s apparent, then, that there is a real value in applying current research findings in a business context, although in the field of diversity and inclusion much of this is in the early stages. Businesses now need to work with academia to gain access to the latest research and contextualize it to their organization. By building this partnership between researchers and businesses, we should be moving into an era where institutional bias is no longer seen as unquantifiable, but can be effectively and demonstrably measured, acted upon and mitigated against.

Of course, academia needs to put its own house in order too; academia can’t take the moral high ground when it continues to discriminate against women in the peer review processPerhaps there is something academia can learn from businesses too?

Hear more from experts across academia and industry by visiting our Real World Impact blog:


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  2. Organisations should realize the importance of diversity and inclusion to broaden their spectrum and organisational goals.


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