Opinion: Here's how to combat unconscious racial bias at work

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The following story was shared anonymously by a woman recalling the early stage of her career when she worked in the headquarters of a U.S.-based implementer. This story is featured as part of the ongoing Women Working in Global Development Campaign, through a partnership between Devex and Quantum Impact.

The story: Racial bias in the workplace

I started in an administrative division where my co-workers were relatively diverse. I was one of several black people in the department. We also worked in close proximity to other departments that had a diverse workforce. As I got to know the company, I realized that diversity of staff was really only present in administrative departments.

I remember the exact time I first became aware that racial bias existed was when I and another African American colleague were making copies in the printing room and had different people at different times ask us for more staples or file folders. There was an assumption that we must be one of the office services workers who restocked supplies in the printing room because all of the other employees who worked for that team were African American.

At first I couldn’t say anything. I was shocked. And there was a part of me that felt like responding, “I don’t know where the staples are. You are asking me that because I’m black, and because all of the other people who work in office services are black.”

I was shaking, that someone would make that assumption. It shook me that much. What I did manage to say was, “I don’t know. I don’t work in office services.”

Later on, I got to know one of the people who asked me that. I think she would be horrified if she knew how that made me feel. That person doesn’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against because of something they can’t control. How it feels that a stranger’s first thought about me is that I’m obviously not a colleague. There’s an implied judgment.

Quantum’s take: Unconscious bias creates a toxic work environment

Everyone exercises some degree of unconscious (or implicit) bias — social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. As global development professionals, we pride ourselves on being altruistic and attuned to cultural differences and contexts. But what if those perceived qualities in fact make it harder to acknowledge when bias is at work in our decision-making?

Human beings are wired to make cognitive shortcuts using past experiences and assumptions. These shortcuts can help us with "mechanistic" tasks, such as deciding what to wear, which route to take to work, or what to eat for lunch. However, we can also default into using bias for more “mindful” tasks, such as who we ask for help, who assign work to, and how we deliver feedback. Heeding our biases without questioning them leads us into repetitive patterns of behavior that exclude possible outcomes, answers, opportunities, and relationships.

In the case of our storyteller, it was particularly demoralizing for her to learn that her non-black colleagues were making assumptions about her and other black staff based on the color of their skin. Even though the woman gave her colleagues the benefit of the doubt that they were unaware of their biases, the experience clearly still had an impact on her sense of belonging. She felt alienated and uncomfortable raising the issue publicly.

Her experience is not isolated. A 2016 survey of U.S. professionals found that black professionals are most likely to say that they can’t discuss racial bias at work. The same study found that this inability to discuss race corresponded with increased attrition, disengagement, and alienation.

Additionally troubling, the employees exhibiting unconscious bias toward our storyteller worked in a U.S. headquarters, but also interacted regularly with people of different races and ethnic backgrounds all over the world as part of their job as global development professionals.

It bears asking: How do the norms and assumptions about race that are deeply embedded in our society affect our daily work as development workers? What effect do our biases have on the quality of the work environment for colleagues of color, both in the field and in headquarters? How do they affect the quality of the work we do to serve communities in cultures different from ours?

Racial bias is a structural problem, not only in global development, but for the entire U.S. nonprofit sector, where people of color in the executive director/CEO role have remained under 20 percent for the past 15 years. We unfortunately don’t have self-reported statistics about diversity of leadership in the global development sector, but Quantum Impact has undertaken an initial survey of leadership across 200 organizations and will be releasing the results in early March through the #GlobalDevWomen campaign with Devex.  

The fix: What can colleagues, HR leaders, and managers do?

Responsibility for addressing endemic bias lies not with people of color, but with the decision-makers and the sector as a whole. Organizations can create policies, practices, and a work culture that intentionally promotes diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Here are three ways to do that:

First, ground yourself in relevant terminology. Here are five keywords that every global development professional needs to know about diversity and inclusion.

Second, ensure every member of your team or organization has access to training to increase their self-awareness and learn practical tools to address unconscious bias and associated behaviors. To be effective, the trainings must be contextualized and nuanced to the organization and the industry. Employees who complete the trainings should receive continuous support through group check-ins, individualized coaching, and professional development opportunities to habitualize more inclusive behavior.

Finally, leaders must tie inclusion and diversity back to their organizational performance goals and make real commitments to drive long-lasting change. A significant portion of the global development workforce is under the age of 36, and research shows that millennials are much more likely to stay in a job if they trust the company that they work for. This means that public commitments from global development leaders to increase diversity and inclusion must be accompanied by hiring of more women and minorities into U.S. and field-based leadership roles, equipping managers to develop meaningful connections with their team members, enabling access to diverse learning opportunities, and demonstrating fairness in promotion and salary decisions.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Sarah Grausz

    Sarah Grausz is an energy leadership coach, organization development specialist, and co-founder of the diversity, equity, and inclusion nonprofit Quantum Impact based in Oakland, California.
  • Farah Mahesri

    Farah Mahesri is co-founder of Quantum Impact, an education and youth specialist, and technology and partnership innovator based in San Francisco.