Organisations can check unconscious biases and create more inclusive workspaces, feel women leaders

On a panel discussion hosted by YourStory as part of the ‘See Us. Hear Us’ campaign by WhatsApp, three women leaders deliberated upon how unconscious biases are preventing organisations from becoming diverse and the way forward

According to the Egon Zehnder Global Diversity Report 2020, women hold just 23.3 percent of board positions globally. As men continue to get the lion’s share of senior positions in boardrooms across the world, the trend has triggered conversations around what is stopping organisations from becoming more diverse and inclusive. Of the several challenges that can be attributed to this trend, rampant unconscious biases are among the most underrated ones.

Such biases can be traced to age-old misconceptions that have crept into organisational cultures and often prevent women from realising their full potential. Research shows that firms with more inclusive and diverse environments are better at decision-making, driving innovation and being resilient amid dynamic market conditions.

To know more about how these biases impact the work culture of an organisation, YourStory, along with WhatsApp, hosted a roundtable discussion on the topic ‘Tackling the unconscious biases in workplaces’. This panel was as a part of a series of roundtables under WhatsApp’s ‘See Us. Hear Us’ campaign.

Moderated by YourStory’s Rekha Balakrishnan, the panel comprised Tina Vinod, Head - Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, ThoughtWorks; Jayanthi Vaidyanathan, Senior Director & Head, Human Resources, PayPal India and Madhurima Agarwal, Director, Engineering Programmes & Leader, NetApp Excellerator.

Here are a few takeaways from the discussion:

Need for a holistic approach towards inclusion

The panellists said that currently there are very few organisations in the formal sector that are focusing on making their workspaces diverse. In most cases their approach is target-based rather than a holistic one.

“There are very few organisations that look at diversity in a holistic way. Of course, there is a lot of benevolent sexism as well. We need to change this narrative and have more women take over leadership roles,” said Tina.

Jayanthi said that while initially the thought process was all about how to get an equal perspective or a woman’s voice on the table, it has now matured to make sure that is more about inclusion. “This inclusion is not just for women, but for those with disabilities, those from the LGBTQIA community. As a country as diverse as India, we should aspire to build regional and socio-economic diversity as well,” she added.

Humans have an innate ability to process unconscious information

Jayanthi said, “I read somewhere that our brain unconsciously processes over 11 million pieces of information per second. Compare that to the 40 pieces of information that it processes consciously. As humans we are trained to process a lot of unconscious information. Hence, due to such innate ability we react very instinctively. There are various forms of unconscious and conscious biases that exist. I think it is important to recognise these unconscious biases and move towards conscious inclusion.”

Working more to compensate for being a woman?

The women leaders said that as ever since companies switched to a hybrid working model due to the pandemic, women are often worried about how their productivity is being measured because they are working from home and, hence they tend to work more.

“Fears like these are perceived as real by many women. They are aware of the kind of biases people hold against them. For example, women know that if they don’t attend a meeting near lunchtime, their colleagues might assume that they’re cooking lunch. Hence, women tend to work more to compensate and take on extra responsibilities which could have been managed easily otherwise, had they been present physically at the office,” said Madhurima.

The way forward, according to Jayanthi, would be to coach leaders and managers to work through the new normal and eliminate any unconscious biases.

Meanwhile, Tina suggested that a good organisational culture and creating a safe space for people to talk can also have a huge impact. “Organisations should understand that employees’ individual experiences are unique and sometimes they might need customised support. They can create a culture of belonging via policies, encouraging people to speak up and through the way they connect,” she added.

They also pointed out how the COVID-19 pandemic had brought unconscious biases to the forefront. The panellists said that there was a common misconception that women can’t be given important projects as they are primary caregivers in their families and are working from home.

Role of tech in battling biases

The three women also discussed how various technologies like the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence could be leveraged to pave the way for more gender-neutral workspaces.

Madhurima added that there were a number of tech-based tools in the mental health space that have proved to be very helpful. “A lot of virtual assistance which can measure mental stress is available today. These tools can send a signal to employers about how their workforce is failing and what can be done to help them, which in turn will promote productivity,” she said.

Tiding over the pandemic with WhatsApp

The women leaders said that WhatsApp was an integral part of their professional lives as they used the platform regularly for informal communication with their colleagues. They also said that at a time when they couldn’t meet in person due to the pandemic, WhatsApp helped them create ‘water cooler moments’ through informal conversations.

Lauding women entrepreneurs who have leveraged WhatsApp as a tool to scale their businesses, Tina said that from helping women sell saris to promote art classes, the messaging app has created a safe space for them to stay connected.

Moving out of the comfort zone to overcome challenges

Jayanthi explained that there were several challenges that companies face while implementing inclusion and diversity programmes for workspaces. “These challenges include stepping out of our comfort zones and having uncomfortable conversations, being willing to listen and accept our biases and learning from the next generations. Our earlier generations probably did not set the best example of having a productive workforce by only hiring and promoting stereotypes like a woman for the role of a typist or a secretary.”

Unconscious biases responsible for fewer women in leadership positions

The panellists said that unconscious biases often prevent women from realising their full potential. While talking about the reasons behind the observation, Madhurima said, “One of the contributing factors would be the fact that fewer girls get an education. Then, there are many others who drop out of the workforce when familial responsibilities fall on their shoulders. In the unorganised sector, we have a lot of women working, but their contribution isn't acknowledged.”

Being humane to promote diversity

The panellists concurred on how it was important for people to be aware of the privileges they carry and talk about inequities that surround them. They said that the best way to promote diversity and inclusion in a workspace was to create a more level-playing field, hire more women at all levels and also hear out what they have to say.

Stressing on the need for organisations to build a culture of heterogeneity, Tina said, “We need to create awareness about inequities. If we want to sustain as humans we need to build inclusive spaces. In addition to that, you need leadership that’s very focussed on diversity and inclusion, inclusive practices and advancement opportunities for people, among other measures.”


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