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A theme running through Dr. Sonia Kang’s work is that—despite having (?) the very best intentions—organizations don’t become more diverse and inclusive on their own.

Kang is an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at University of Toronto Mississauga. In addition, she serves as chief scientist at Behavioural Economics in Action at Rotman (BEAR) Centre and a faculty research fellow at Rotman Institute for Gender and the Economy. Her work centres around the inclusivity in the workplace, examining the barriers that prevent some people from getting ahead.

Kang will be part of a panel discussion on creating an inclusive culture at CEO Global Network’s Women’s Leadership Summit (for which The Globe and Mail is media partner) in Mississauga, Ont. on February 27th. Ahead of the event, The Globe spoke with her about what actually fosters inclusivity—and what doesn’t.

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What drew you to this particular field of study?

I started in psychology. I have bachelor’s degree in psychology from University of Alberta, then I came to the University of Toronto where I got an MA and PhD in experimental social psychology. That is, basically, the studies you read about where people do experiments in a lab, they find results, they write it up, and it’s kind of like, ‘OK, it’ll go in a journal and nothing will really happen.’ So I became attracted to more applied work. I try to take it out of the lab and do experiments and get data in the field to make sure what we’re finding in the lab actually applies in different contexts. And so that’s what brought me to organizational behaviour, in a procedural sense.

Your work includes looking at unconscious bias, which has become something of a buzzword among managers and leaders. How effective are things like unconscious bias training in reducing workplace discrimination?

Unconscious bias is a really good, and easy, place to start. The reason it is so accessible and has become so common is that everyone has unconscious bias. It has a bit of mysticism to it—because it’s unconscious, it’s outside of your awareness, you don’t know what’s happening.

The positive aspect of unconscious bias training—and even awareness of it—is that you can get engagement from people who can be really oppositional to talking about race or sexism. Many leaders think ‘I’m not racist, I don’t need to talk about that. This is a conversation about someone else, not me.’ But because you easily show, using an implicit association test (IAT), that unconscious bias is universal and everyone has it, it provides kind of a showy starting point.

The problem with unconscious bias, in application, is that it’s basically impossible to change. There’s a lot of money put into unconscious bias training and talking about it, and unfortunately that basically does nothing. You can change peoples’ attitudes in the short term, but you’re not going to change their long-term attitude or behaviour at all.

So, I think that is a major shortcoming. You can start out with unconscious bias [training], but you need to provide people with a much more meaningful structure for how they can notice and stop actually harmful behaviour that they see, or that they are engaged in themselves.

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What does that look like?

Look at discrimination in hiring. You might be aware that, because of your unconscious biases, when you see a resume from a Black person, you will be more likely to discount their accomplishments. You might think ‘I need to overcome my unconscious biases.’

OK, well, how do you actually do that? People don’t know how, and can’t know how, because you can’t disrupt those unconscious biases.

A really easy thing to do is to anonymize [resumes]. Take out peoples’ names, for example, which could be a cue to race or a cue to gender. And that kind of thing is talked about a lot less. Actually doing the work of changing structures and systems—people management software, for example—is not easy to do. I think that’s why we see a disconnect between how much money is put into unconscious bias training, and the fact that the outcomes don’t really change: people are not not putting money into the things that make a difference.

Can you give an example of a change organizations make that is both structural and relatively easily implemented?

The idea that women just don’t like conflict and competition is often cited as a reason for why they don’t get promoted or don’t ask for higher salaries. And so, a lot of advice given to women about competition is your standard Lean In stuff: to ask for things, not be so nice, be more assertive. Those messages are saying ‘change yourself, fix yourself.’ Unfortunately, there’s a double bind there: People dislike it when women act too feminine, but they also dislike it when women act too masculine. And so, it doesn’t end up working out.

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So, we said ‘OK, let’s forget about changing women. Instead, let’s change the ways in which competition is framed.’ For instance, normally in work life, you have to actively apply for a promotion—you’re required to opt in to competition. So we did an experiment in which that was a condition. But we added another condition where everyone at a certain threshold within the organization had to compete, with the option to opt out.

The reason we did this is that there is a lot of work in behavioural economics that says that defaults have a really strong effect on people’s behaviour. For example, in countries where blood donation is opt-in, there are really low rates of enrollment, maybe five to 10 per cent. But in countries where everyone is a blood donor, and you have to opt out if you don’t want to be, enrollment rates are super high, approximately 95 per cent. Whatever is the default is, whatever is the easiest route, people are more likely to take it.

In our experiment, we found that when people had to opt in to compete, the traditional gap existed: men chose to compete at 75 per cent, and women only chose to compete at about 25 per cent. But when everyone was considered for competition with the choice to opt out, both men and women chose to compete at about 75 per cent. We actually eliminated that gap.

That is an example of a structural change in which, basically, you’re leaving everything the same—you still have competition, you still have promotions—you’re just changing the way in which people are put forward.

So it’s kind of like making inclusion the rule, not the exception.

If you set up environments that are inclusive to everyone, everyone benefits. It has a cascading effect. Some of my work now is on that concept, kind of based on the idea of universal design. We call it extreme inclusion: Setting up your environment so it’s inclusive for the most extreme situation you can think of. That way it will be inclusive for everyone.

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The classic example of that is curb cuts in sidewalks. The reason they’re there is to accommodate people in wheelchairs, but so many people benefit from that: people with strollers, small children, people with other mobility issues.

Another example, from my own life: I work on a floor that is scent-free. I can’t even remember why; someone needed it to be a scent-free floor for some reason, but it helped me, because I get migraines, and now I don’t get them as much.

So, thinking about how you’re setting up your structure and systems and environments, is, I think, a lot more powerful than trying to get individuals to change things.

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