5 actions employers can take to reduce bias and discrimination in STEM fields

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Since the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, companies are looking for ways to combat racial bias and discrimination at work. The stats are jarring. In one study, hiring managers were 74% more likely to hire candidates with white-sounding names when their resumes were identical. Despite research showing that teams with more diversity perform better than more homogeneous teams, Black and Latino workers remain underrepresented in STEM.

Just 3.1% of American tech workers are Black, and Silicon Valley is just 3% Black. And things may actually be getting worse. Around 1% of tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are Black and Black Americans are severely underrepresented in positions of leadership at influential technology companies. In 2017 Fast Company reported there were fewer Black women in tech than there were in 2007.

Nearly every Fortune 500 company offers some variety of diversity training, yet diverse workers still face bias and discrimination. Referred to as implicit bias training, unconscious bias training, and antibias training, these classes are supposed to reduce bias against certain groups, such as women and BIPOC, by making people aware of their biases.

Read more: Addressing racial trauma and PTSD among Black employees

Diversity training is often the go-to after a diversity PR disaster. For example, after a Starbucks barista stopped a Black man from using their restroom without buying something, the company closed 8,000 stores for a half day to put 175,000 workers through diversity training. These trainings aren’t cheap. U.S. companies spend approximately $8 billion every year on diversity training. It cost Starbucks around $12 million in lost business alone.

Here are five things you can do that can help reduce bias and discrimination in your workplace.

1. Measure your progress
Diversity training remains incredibly popular, despite the evidence. Part of the reason may be that companies aren’t measuring the effectiveness of their diversity efforts. Or, if they are measuring it, they’re not acting on the data.

Fast Company and Doug Harris, CEO of The Kaleidoscope Group, recommend companies survey employees to determine whether they’re seeing improvements in diversity, equity, and inclusion. “I think one of the biggest actions [companies concerned about diversity] can take is to totally understand the inequities in their company,” Harris said. “Then put in place plans to address those inequities.

One good first step is a company-wide survey. In addition, it’s smart to keep track of counterproductive work behaviors. Founder Andrea Barrica notes that the rate at which women and people of color leave tech is even more alarming than hiring discrepancies. Many workers have heard off-color jokes or comments that hiring women, parents or a Black person will kill the “fun” culture at work.

Read more: 5 ways to prevent unconscious bias from ruining your company culture

Are alienating incidents and microaggressions getting more or less frequent over time? Then look at your company’s recruitment, promotions, and leadership. How diverse, equitable, and inclusive are they? Finally, are you seeing less or more lawsuits, claims, settlements, or PR problems?

If possible, take stock of your situation before implementing any new diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives so you can compare your situation before and after to measure their effectiveness.

2. Make diversity training one part of a wider effort
Once you have a baseline, you’ll have a better idea of where you should focus your efforts. Regardless of where you’re starting, one short diversity training alone is unlikely to make a measurable difference.

What does work, according to the research, is diversity training that is ongoing, includes a skills component, and is just one part of a larger effort around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Dobbin and Kalev point out that a one-and-done diversity training can leave workers with unrealistic expectations and complacency around bias.

Sometimes subtle changes can have a big impact. For example, salary transparency/pay equity assessment is an initiative to consider combining with diversity training. Salary secrecy may diminish employee performance and transparency may help improve employee collaboration and boost motivation. However, the data is unclear on whether salary transparency results in more equal pay. There’s evidence that pay transparency may lower average salaries and boost company profits.

3. Make diversity training voluntary
As discussed in the second post in this series, diversity training often fails because it leaves some workers feeling personally attacked and afraid they’ll be discriminated against. Plus, when training is mandatory and the suggestions are presented as commands, people resist because they dislike feeling controlled. Another issue is that while diversity training works on some people, it actually causes others to become more prejudiced.

It may make sense to make the training strictly voluntary. Ideally, the people who would be negatively impacted by diversity training would decline to attend, and the people who do attend won’t feel controlled. Another way to make the training more obviously voluntary is to make it clear that the purpose is to make the company better, not to avoid getting sued.

For example, instead of saying “We’re introducing this diversity initiative to avoid getting sued,” say “We believe that increasing diversity will improve the business together.”

4. Evaluate workers on inclusion
University of Chicago CS Professor Chelsea Troy pointed out that training workers on topics they know they won’t be evaluated on doesn't stick. To get workers invested in the material, let them know you’ll evaluate them on their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

“Bias trainings are interesting, but after they’re over employees don’t focus there because they’re not evaluated on their inclusion literacy,” Troy wrote. “Instead, employees focus on the skills they need to get ahead—writing code, appeasing the boss, establishing influence. Individual people treat inclusion like an elective because the company’s incentive system treats inclusion like an elective. Once employees need it to get ahead, suddenly they’ll be going above and beyond those bias trainings to learn it.”

Consider evaluating your employees based on how well they moderate discussions to make sure everyone has a chance to contribute, solicit opinions from the appropriate people, give people proper credit for their work, assume that their colleagues have reasonably advanced knowledge, and productively navigate disagreements.

5. Engage leadership
Rather than having HR facilitate diversity for employees, try to engage leadership in some ongoing initiatives. Anti-discrimination efforts that engage decision makers in solving the problem themselves work best. For example, companies that asked corporate managers to find women and minority recruits markedly increased their managerial diversity.

You could also create diversity task forces composed of leaders from various departments to gather and examine hiring, retention, pay, and promotion data. Those leaders should also be responsible for identifying areas for improvement, researching potential solutions, and selling their initiatives to their departments.

Leaders should be responsible for making sure job postings don’t include language that alienates diverse candidates. Similarly, leaders should test whether whiteboard interviews or alcohol-based social events negatively impact diversity. If you include benefits in your job descriptions, include domestic partner benefits, maternity, paternity, and adoption leave.

Also aim to interview at least one diverse candidate for every major role.

Going forward
Despite its popularity, diversity training, by itself, is unlikely to do much to increase your company’s diversity, equity, or inclusion. This is unfortunate, since tech has a long way to go in terms of parity in hiring, pay, or promotion.

To make a lasting difference, companies must:

  • Measure their current levels of diversity, equity, or inclusion
  • After setting your baseline, look into more comprehensive, ongoing initiatives
  • If you’re going to include diversity training in your roadmap, consider making it voluntary
  • Also consider making diversity-promoting behaviors part of employee evaluations
  • Task company leaders with ideating potential diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and best practices.
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Diversity and equality Training Racial Bias Employee communications