Unconscious Bias in The Workplace: IDEO.org’s Rafael Sergio Smith Talks Design Solutions to Promote Diversity

by Patrick Faller

posted on 08-15-2017

On August 25-26, 2017, the Design + Diversity Conference will take place in St. Louis, Missouri with the goal of making the design industry more diverse. Adobe is proud to be a sponsor, and we reached out to its keynote speaker, Rafael Sergio Smith, to tell us more about the state of diversity in technology and design companies in 2017.

Rafael is the design lead at IDEO.org, IDEO’s non-profit arm aiming at tackling challenges related to poverty around the world. He says workplace diversity, or the lack of it in many cases, is a big contributor to the wealth gap in the U.S. and other countries. He’s done a lot of research into what he calls widespread unconscious bias in hiring practices, and is a firm believer that technology and design is the answer.

What is unconscious bias and how is it affecting diversity in our workplaces?

We grew up in an imperfect world, and we are all conditioned to believe certain things about certain social groups. We all have a set of preconceived notions about the capabilities of men and women, of black folks and latinx folks, of people with disabilities, of the LGBTQ community. These notions influence our decision making and how we view the world. Even if we’re not aware of them, they’re baked into us.

Often times, when we see people, we don’t know their whole story. We just see them and their resume, for example, and we rely on the social group to which that person belongs and the characteristics it embodies to form our judgements about them. This often leads us to believe in people we shouldn’t and distrust people we should trust, and that affects who gets hired and who doesn’t.

Just look at the data regarding certain workplaces. Latinx workers in the tech industry make up about 5 percent. That is grossly under-indexed given the number of computer science graduates with those identities entering the workforce. I think there’s such an overwhelming amount of data showing that even the people we think are the most altruistic harbor unconscious bias.

How can companies deal with unconscious bias?

Blind hiring practices are key. One of the first case studies I found in my research was from around the mid-century. At that time in the U.S., the top five orchestras in the country were 5 percent women. In the early 1950s, the Boston Symphony Orchestra recognized this. They thought this likely had nothing to do with talent but rather was caused by some bias in the system.

They started experimenting with what we now call blind auditions, when you put a curtain between a performer and the judge. At first, it flopped because the judges could still tell the gender of the performer by the sound their shoes would make on the floor. So they started having people take off their shoes. Blind auditions increased the likelihood of a female performer advancing to final auditions by 50 percent. In the coming decades, the orchestras went to 25-30% women.

When I first saw this case study, I thought ‘wow, this was an intentional design solution that mitigated bias.’ The problem here is that there was a deep-seeded belief that male = virtuoso. That deep-seeded belief undermined these orchestras’ abilities to select top talent, and blind auditions mitigated that bias.

What role do designers play in countering unconscious bias?

I think there’s a big opportunity for technology to step up. The canon of design today is around empathy, and we have to empathize with our end user to create world-changing products. In our industry, we often mistake the word empathy for sympathy. If empathy is what it really takes to build amazing products, we have to stop pretending that one type of designer can truly have empathy for everyone else. We need to intentionally build diverse design teams.

By the year 2040, the majority of Americans will be visible minorities. If institutions do not adapt and find a broader range of people whose voices are being centered in how we go about understanding our end users, I think these companies are going to become obsolete.

What tools are available to help promote diverse workplaces?

Textio is a great example. It helps people write more more inclusive job postings. There was a study from Hewlett that found that men apply to jobs only if they meet 60 percent of the criteria, but women only apply if they meet 100 percent of the criteria. So, the words we choose in postings has a huge impact on who feels qualified enough to apply.

It’s basically spell check for gender bias, to help you attract more qualified and gender diverse candidates.

On average teams that get a high score on their job postings on Textio attract 23 percent more women. The words we use often show bias.

What is the advantage for companies in making diversity in the workplace a priority?

If a company is on the fence on whether or not this should be a priority, they should look at McKinsey’s Diversity Dividend. It explains the financial returns to diverse companies and the competitive advantage diversity gives, and found gender diverse companies had a 15 percent increased chance of outperforming companies that were comparatively not gender diverse.

For ethnic diversity, it’s a 35 percent increased chance very diverse companies will financially outperform the least diverse companies. Diversity is mission critical to financial performance today, and it’s mission critical in the coming years.

Why is countering unconscious bias and promoting diverse workplaces so important to you as a designer?

At the core, I think diversity is an economic issue. When I look at the wealth gap in the U.S. between racial identities. Black and Latinx households have an average 12-13 times less wealth than white households. When companies are not intentional about addressing unconscious bias and putting an emphasis on diversity, they’re intentionally or even unintentionally perpetuating the wealth gap in this country.

When I look at a lot of the challenges I see in my own family and in a number of communities I’ve been part of, a lot of core negative issues are rooted in a lack of options for economic empowerment.

As a designer, I’m optimistic about the world we can build, but I know for sure we cannot build the world we all want to live in with an incredibly homogenous workforce. I’ve seen the power of working with diverse teams. There’s such a richness in types of people, and experiences, and perspectives. The broadest sense of diversity, of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, we cannot build the world we want unless we have all those people at the table.

Learn more about the Design + Diversity Conference on its website, and click here to read why diversity and inclusion in the workplace is a top priority at Adobe.

Topics: Design, Diversity & Inclusion, Career Advice

Products: Creative Cloud