Employers who wish to foster diversity, equity and inclusion in order to drive performance and innovation at their firms need to make a priority of tackling unconscious biases within themselves, global DE&I leader Wema Hoover said during her keynote address.

Wema Hoover

Hoover, a former global head of DE&I at Google and Pfizer, noted that unconscious bias is wholly natural to all people, and not something to be ashamed of. But tackling it in its entirety can be more difficult than one might think. The “implicit associations” that people make about an individual or a group based on personal beliefs or experiences can lead to cognitive dissonance, which Hoover defined as “when you hold on so tightly to a belief or feeling even in the face of conflicting evidence.”

Cognitive dissonance ultimately puts businesses at competitive disadvantages, Hoover added.

“This can be truly detrimental and damaging in organizations because it can prevent you from breaking into new markets, understanding the communities that you are intended to serve in a way that allows you to learn their experience… to connect with them, to have culturally relevant services and outreach,” she said.

Another problem with unconscious bias is that it can lead to groupthink, which she noted can underpin company culture.

Hoover said that unconscious bias must be combated actively, and that sending “positive signals and cues” into the workplace enabling staff to do so “encourages the status quo to be challenged appropriately, effectively, and to ultimately promote the practices that allow employees the freedom to positively innovate, disrupt, and improve to advance business.”

By challenging unconscious bias and addressing cognitive dissonance, “you can create new models of leadership,” she said.

In order to highlight the pervasiveness of unconscious biases and the effect they have on certain groups, Hoover asked the audience to convey if they were denied certain services due to their appearance; whether, as executives, they were arbitrarily asked to perform duties like order food or serve coffee; whether someone touched their hair without their permission; and whether they were questioned about their nationality after giving their full birth name.

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These types of experiences are typically only felt by select groups, Hoover noted.

“They matter because these are the experiences that certain people and communities have in their day-to-day lives that others will not ever experience,” she said, adding that they are felt by people including employees, shareholders and clients.

DE&I’s principles aren’t synonymous

Many view diversity, equity and inclusion as one thing, or each interchangeable with the others. Hoover wishes to dispel that way of thinking.

Diversity, she said, represents the things that make people who they are, which can include race, gender, background, education and beliefs.

Equity, Hoover noted, “is the intentional process of ensuring there is fair and impartial opportunity for everyone to thrive and succeed.” Examples include initiatives for pay equity and diversity recruitment.

Inclusion “is really around the conditions that you create in the workplace,” she added. It means addressing company culture and helping employees thrive.