By Mihae Ahn on March 08, 2024

Increase Representation. Reduce Gender Bias. Inspire Inclusion.

The theme of International Women's Day 2024 is Inspire Inclusion. When I first learned of this theme, I let out a happy sigh because I believe inclusion is such an important topic in the era we live in. Our world is so divided. Bullying is going on in workplaces and schools. The "us versus you" narrative has penetrated so many parts of our lives. For those of us in the technology sector, no day passes without talking about generative AI, and we often discuss responsible AI and inclusivity because the negative impact of non-inclusivity would be so much more powerful and scary.

Inclusion in a workplace doesn't happen when we simply increase the number of people from marginalized groups. Increasing diversity is one of the steps we need to take to create an equitable workplace. A Harvard Business Review (HRB) article I recently read discussed the concept of "viewing bias" and "valuing bias." Research showed that by introducing DEI training, organizations could decrease viewing bias but not valuing bias. After going through the DEI training, managers noticed desirable traits and behaviours such as "collaboration" or "team-player" in both men and women, i.e. reduced viewing bias. On male employees' performance reviews, the desirable traits were linked to positive effects on the company's bottom line and strategic impact. On female employees’ performance reviews on the other hand, this linkage didn't appear as much. As a result, there are more opportunities for raises and promotions for me. More pats on the back for women. Meaning that the DEI training did not have enough tangible impact: The valuing bias persisted despite the DEI training.

Understanding Human Biases and Their Origins

We humans are affected by many biases. Forming stereotypes and biases is a very human thing to do. It has something to do with our survival instinct. Back when we were hunting and being hunted, a quick judgment was extremely necessary. In a situation where you were facing a tiger, you had to make a quick judgment to either flee or fight, depending on all the variables. Quick decisions were very much necessary. The right decision meant survival. The wrong decision meant, well, death. Also, the brain is a highly energy-intensive organ. It weighs only 2% of body mass, but it consumes 20% of the energy. It wants to use as many shortcuts as possible to be as energy efficient as possible. So, making quick judgments leads to cognitive biases, which is part of being human.

Internationa-womens-day banner of women's brainThe Power of Brain Plasticity

That said, humans also possess a superpower: brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity. Our brain is capable of adapting, changing, and reorganizing and this capability doesn’t stop at a young age. It stays with us during our whole lifetime. Throughout our life, our brain constantly undergoes changes.

What we think, what we decide to think, literally changes our brain. What we think about the most takes up the most space in our brain. The more we think about something, the more we get to think about that thing, as the more brain cells are allocated to that thing. And the things that we don't pay attention to get less and less space in our brain. Our brain cells mark unused circuits as irrelevant, and when that is repeated, the unused, irrelevant circuits get pruned away so that the most frequently used and the most relevant circuits get more energy. We can change our brains with our thoughts in a really real, concrete way.

Leveraging Awareness to Combat Bias

The more we learn about the various cognitive biases we tend to experience, the more we will be able to notice and recognize when we perform and act from the place of biases. The more we recognize, the more we can move away from acting from the place of biases. The more we do this, the more we can influence others to do the same. If more of us act against falling victim to biases, the more inclusive workplaces will become.

I recently participated in a panel discussion at an International Women's Day celebration event hosted by Microsoft's GPA Women's Council. The panel discussed a few different topics, including inclusive hiring, allyship, mentorship, and more. One of the panel discussion questions was if the success of Barbie, Taylor Swift, and Beyonce has helped reduce gender bias in the workplace. My answer was that it helped to increase representation – because not only men are spotlighted in the mass media and pop culture but also women through a positive lens - which probably led to reduced representation bias. However, this doesn't directly lead to reduced gender bias. More awareness, training, and interventions are necessary if we are to truly inspire inclusion.

International-Womens-Day-2024 - bannerInclusion Initiatives at ProServeIT

ProServeIT became a B Corporation in January this year after a two and a half year certification journey. As a B Corporation, the topic of inclusion is more important than ever to ProServeIT.

ProServeIT established a women's employee resource group last year. Our group's name is #EmpowerWomen. #EmpowerWomen's three main goals are:

1) to support our women's career growth; 2) to create an inclusive workplace that inspires the sense of belonging; and 3) to give back to the community.

To achieve the first goal, we joined The Women In Technology Network which provides our women various resources including leadership training designed specifically for women in technology. For the second goal, we have hosted quarterly lunch and learn sessions and monthly drop-in lunch sessions. For the third goal, we hosted a clothing drive in celebration of International Women's Day 2023, and we are hosting one again later this month to celebrate International Women's Day 2024. The plan is to make it an annual give-back initiative.

Empower Women Clothing Drive - bannerWe are taking one step at a time with specific goals in mind to make our workplace more inclusive and where diversity and a sense of belonging are present. I warmly invite you to establish your objectives and action plan to inspire inclusion within your workplace. Happy International Women's Day!

Published by Mihae Ahn March 8, 2024