Recognizing the benefits of a diverse workforce, and overcoming the challenges to it (which are often subtle and hidden below the surface) was the theme of the presentation Andie Kramer and Al Harris made to the CFA Society Chicago on January 18. Andie and Al are practicing attorneys, and also business partners working to build awareness of the benefits of expanded diversity–especially gender diversity–in the workplace. Their starting premise is that teams of diverse members will be more productive because the differences among the members requires that they be more careful in their deliberations, more thoughtful about what they say, more collaborative with each other, and in the end, more productive and innovative. So, increased diversity is not just morally and ethically right, it can also lead to improved results and profits.
If greater diversity is so good, why is it difficult to achieve? Mainly because it takes us out of our comfort zones. We naturally prefer to associate and work with people who are like us in many ways. Reaching consensus with people of differing perspectives can be difficult, so we tend to avoid diverse groups to reduce tension and conflicts. Improving diversity requires addressing several areas, first among them is the challenge of bias which Kramer and Harris define as an unconscious belief, preference, or inclination that inhibits impartiality. Bias in turn is shaped by stereotypes which ascribe behavioral characteristics to someone based on an easily observed characteristic (such as gender, age, race, etc.). These stereotypes form our perceptions and expectations about people even before we know them. Our challenge is to invalidate these misperceptions with real evidence.
Kramer and Harris pointed out two types of personality characteristics that stereotypes assign by gender. Stereotyping considers communal characteristics such as compassion, affection, modesty, sympathy, and warmth to be feminine. Conversely, agentic, or action-oriented characteristics such as aggressiveness, confidence, risk acceptance, and independence are masculine. We naturally consider successful leaders to be agentic, and if we consider those characteristics to be masculine, we create a bias toward men as leaders. Gender bias is often manifested through “micro-aggressions” such as subtle putdowns (verbal and nonverbal), sarcasm, and dismissive gestures. In Kramer and Harris’s view these provide the scaffolding for workplace discrimination.
What can men and women do to improve this situation? Men must first learn to recognize gender bias, using the indicators of micro-aggressions, and object to it firmly. They should “think slow”, using their rational brains more than the emotional. They should advocate for women as mentors (whether formal or not), and embrace differences. Women need to perform a balancing act: recognize the importance of agentic characteristics, but temper them with the communal.
Organizations can improve diversity by recognizing that gender bias exists and that by holding back women, it leads to sub-optimal results. They should strive to make hiring and promoting practices fair and equitable. An important step toward this is removing subjectivity from the evaluation process as much as possible (for example, eliminating open-ended questions in interviews). Finally, managers should seek feedback on their efforts from employees or external experts.