How to Find and Fix Blind Spots in Diversity and Inclusion: The Essential Guide

Blind spots in diversity and inclusion

What are diversity blind spots?

All species of swan outside Australia are white. Before Europeans explored Australia, they assumed all swans were white – absence of evidence was treated as evidence of absence – and thus the term “black swan” came to connote something that could not possibly exist. Then when it was discovered there were actual black swans in Australia, a “black swan” came to mean something incorrectly believed to be impossible or nonexistent. 

Blind spots in diversity and inclusion are sort of like black swans: leaders and designers make decisions that they assume to be unproblematic because the problems are outside their frame of reference and personal experience. 

Another analogy: if you’re right-handed, try writing in a spiral notebook or three-ring binder with your left hand – uncomfortable, right? Now imagine being in a class that requires you to take notes in a spiral notebook. The right-handed teacher/professor who made that rule probably had no idea it was burdensome to left-handed students because handedness had never caused problems for them in the past. Now realize: it has never caused problems because everything is designed for right-handed people. In this same way, people who benefit from white, male, class, and/or able-bodied privilege are oblivious to certain issues because of their unconscious assumption that their experiences are universal.

Our brains are wired to make assumptions, and these can often be riddled with unconscious bias. In order to improve our diversity intelligence, we must overcome blind spots.

Blind Spots in I.T.

How does unconscious bias affect the workplace? One example of a blind spot is in IT. For example, a software system (e.g. for onboarding) may not be able to account for the possibility that a new employee’s gender is different from the one on their ID documents, or that requires every employee to select “male” or “female” to proceed to the next step.

Another example would be legacy database systems with name entry fields that do not allow spaces, hyphens or apostrophes (so if your name is Soo Jin or Da’Shaun, you have to misspell your name just to get it in the database). In these systems, the basic design excludes people not out of malice, but because of the designer’s unconscious assumptions that gender is binary or that names do not include apostrophes.

One example of a company overcoming blind spots in IT is Apple’s built-in accessibility feature VoiceOver, which allows people with disabilities to use platforms according to their needs. For example, people with low vision can use audio narration and Braille output. 

Blind Spots in Workplace Policies

A blind spot in diversity and inclusion is a lack of awareness or prejudice. When enacted into policy, these “blind spots” become a form of discrimination. One example is workplace policies affecting black hair, a blind spot that became a civil rights issue. A Eurocentric view of hair styling has led to discriminatory policies that penalize natural black hairstyles. As of January 2022, 12 states have passed legislation preventing discrimination based on hair texture. 

Another example is workplaces failing to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Current disability law mandates that physical spaces be designed with disabled people in mind; however, non-physical spaces are more contested. Accessible technology is not available to everyone. While the ADA – and companies like Microsoft and organizations like MIT – are working to make technology more accessible to people with cognitive and physical disabilities, it remains a murky legal gray area.

black swan theory

Blind Spots in Data Collection

Lumping in all identities can conceal problems. For example, if your company has trouble retaining Black employees, this may go undetected if you are only collecting stats on “people of color.” 

Another example of a diversity blind spot in data collection is the complicated relationship between disability and privacy. Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal contractors to take affirmative action in hiring employees with disabilities; however, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, employers are not required to disclose the number of people hired and retained by contractors. This lack of data prevents reaching a better understanding of disability discrimination, especially intersectional discrimination.

Unconscious bias in humans leads to biased datasets, which leads to biased AI systems through machine learning. This causes things like algorithms struggling to recognize and distinguish between black faces

Blind Spots in the Hiring Process

One study showed that “masculine”-coded language – such as “individual,” “challenging” and “driven” — in hiring advertisements can decrease the number of female candidates applying for the job by up to 10 percent. Whereas when job advertisements were worded with feminine-coded – “together,” “collaborate,” “responsibility,” – or neutral words, female applicants increased by 54 percent. Furthermore, the use of feminine language in a job description meant that women were more likely to be offered the job.

The hiring process is even more difficult for women of color: research has showed that traditional hiring questions such as quizzing applicants on their current salary disadvantage women, particularly black women. Underrepresented groups are less likely to apply to a position where they do not meet all the criteria; therefore, it is helpful to not ask that candidates tick all the boxes of an explicit set of criteria but rather to be able to identify potential. 

Research shows that implicit bias is ubiquitous in the hiring process: one study concluded that Asian and African American applicants who masked their names were more likely to get interviews than those who did not. 

Why Blind Spots in Diversity and Inclusion are a Problem

Because the brain is wired to make decisions with unconscious bias, inappropriate decision making is likely to occur because of a lack of conscious thought. These decisions can affect underrepresented groups day to day and even be woven into corporate culture. 

Workers who feel excluded or unseen are less happy and more likely to leave. If your corporate culture is seen as one that undermines diversity and inclusions, prospective candidates may not want to work for you in the first place. 

In some cases, blind spots can lead to legal action. One prominent example of this is Wal Mart. The company has been continually sued for gender discrimination, with plaintiffs arguing that unconscious bias was woven into corporate culture, putting women at a disadvantage. One case made it to the Supreme Court, with the Court ultimately finding that the plaintiffs were unable to prove unconscious bias. However, these ongoing lawsuits still lead to a great deal of negative publicity. 

Another company that has faced legal heat for accusations of unconscious bias is Google. When Google released its transparency report in 2014, it indicated a majority white, male and Asian workforce. Google has since been accused of setting quotas to try to remedy this imbalance. Google also makes efforts to train its employees on how to recognize unconscious bias; however, diversity is still not perceived to be part of Google’s core values.

The benefits of a culture of diversity and inclusion are well-documented. Diverse teams are more likely to exhibit objectivity, come up with more creative decisions than homogenous groups, and a climate of inclusion can decrease turnover. 

How to Overcome Diversity Blind Spots

Unconscious bias is a very misunderstood form of discrimination. Overcoming diversity blind spots first requires self-awareness. In 2018, the Mars brand discovered some harsh truths about female representation in their advertising. They partnered with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to assess their advertising, finding that men were nearly twice as likely to be shown working as women, with more male than female characters being shown having an occupation.

Mars has been running yearly audits ever since and announced in June 2022 that female characters now make up 45 percent of their advertising, nearing gender parity.

One of the simplest ways to overcome blind spots in diversity intelligence is to consult the people who are being affected by policies. That’s where Employee Resource Groups come in. Take advantage of ERGs to tap into employees’ views and make yourself aware of any blind spots in workplace policy. 

People naturally gravitate toward people who are like them. But making decisions in homogenous groups can cause tunnel vision and hinder innovation. In order to overcome their own blind spots, leadership should make a conscious effort to be more approachable. In order to overcome blind spots at the hiring stage, put together a diverse hiring team. 

James Dyson, head of global DE&I talent acquisition at Boomi, introduced the idea of the seven pillars of inclusion, a framework that provides companies a starting point for addressing blind spots in diversity and inclusion. The seven pillars are access, attitude, choice, partnerships, communication, policy and opportunities. 

Getting expert help can allow you to implement these seven pillars in all levels of your organization. Unconscious Bias training is commonly used to address how our brains have been trained to make discriminatory decisions based on a fear of differences.

Diversifying your board and C-Suite through DE&I-driven executive search is a good start, but there are many other services that could help depending on your specific needs. Ellig Group has built a network of strategic partnerships in the DE&I space for exactly this reason. By creating an ideal environment for creative talent to flourish, you can drive innovation in your company.