Jennifer Brown is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker and diversity and inclusion expert. Informed by more than a decade consulting to Fortune 500 companies, her new book entitled Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will To Change (Advantage Media Group, November Fall 2016) creates a compelling case for leadership to embrace the opportunity that diversity represents, for their own growth and for the success of their organizations, while simultaneously empowering advocates at all levels to find their voice and be a driving force in creating more enlightened organizations that resonate in a fast-changing world. Below, we present the first of three excerpts from this relevant book, which is now more timely than ever.
A colleague who works at a major hotel chain recently shared my TEDx talk on “Finding Your Voice in the Workplace℠” as part of a sales training he was leading. About halfway through, he hit the pause button and asked, “Who do you think this woman is?” He collected all kinds of answers, and then he hit play again. Once he got to the section where I detail my experiences with coming out as LGBTQ (more on that in a moment) and how my identity impacts my experience as a business owner, people were astonished. In just a few minutes, they had formed so many assumptions about me -- about my family, my work, what’s important to me -- and most of them were wrong.
All of us make assumptions based on what’s visible about someone, and then we fill in the blanks about the rest, often based on our own lens orfilter. That old friend, unconscious bias, creeps in. Many of us, in our everyday lives, think in terms of stereotypes and have no experience of things that are beyond our conception of the norm. We just haven’t been exposed to difference. The Johari Window mentioned in the previous chapter demonstrates that we have areas where we may be overconfident in what we know, rather than acknowledging that there is so much we don’t know -- our many blind spots, in other words.
Sharing my personal story in these training sessions involves my personalizing the issue of stereotypes and unconscious bias. I use myself as a teaching instrument. If the audience is largely white, given I’m a white woman, they might be slightly more comfortable with what they perceive as our “sameness,” and I’m aware that I might have access to conversations and influencing opportunities because of the comfort my audiences feel or a certain unearned status they bestow on me.
When they learn even more about my identity, further along in my story -- when I come out, for example, as LGBTQ -- my audiences are forced to confront the fact that there are some aspects of me they may not be so comfortable with or even familiar with. Foreign or surprising aspects about someone can trigger a negative judgment. If you’ll pardon the saying, it’s often not so black and white, or even clear to us -- let alone those meeting us for the first time. The concept of an individual having multiple aspects and truths -- the idea that someone can be privileged in some ways but not in others, or have multiple identities that intersect and impact each other, including gender, race, and sexual orientation -- is called intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 2014. It is the ability to hold in our minds all of who someone is, simultaneously, a skill that we can learn through practice and discipline.
When the opportunity presents itself, I may hesitate to reveal more of my own diversity story, depending on the assumptions -- potentially inaccurate -- that I’m making about the risks involved in revealing further personal details and in being true to myself. This dynamic prevents so many in today’s workplace from feeling their worth is recognized, and it takes a toll on their sense of self. We’ll talk about this dynamic, identified as covering, later in the book.
But when we do share our stories, it provides a powerful opportunity to open up the dialogue and leverage our identities to create greater understanding of the ways in which people view, and often misperceive, the world through the tinted lens of their own experiences. We are each a powerful instrument and demonstration of the beauty of the intersections. If we all can better understand how unconscious bias works and cultivate awareness of our individual biases, then we can avoid limiting or damaging our ability to lead, to make decisions, and to be better colleagues. Whether those decisions involve recruiting, hiring, staffing a project, choosing a mentor or a supplier, or even how we engage with another human being on the street or in the subway, unconscious bias is always present in us. But how much better would it be if we knew we were making the decision based on the best information possible, rather than based on a snap judgment? As Google’s blog states it: “Combating our unconscious biases is hard, because they don’t feel wrong; they feel right. But it’s necessary to fight against bias in order to create a work environment that supports and encourages diverse perspectives and people.”
Two additional excerpts from Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will to Change will follow later in the week.
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