I still find it surprising when people make assumptions about me. What new colleagues and clients first see is that I’m a white, male audit partner at PwC. That first impression can lead to all sorts of conclusions, but what people most frequently get wrong is assuming I’m straight. Hearing well intentioned questions about my wife or girlfriend reminds me how powerful blind spots are in our lives. Since sexual orientation is an invisible dimension of diversity, coming out is a process that is never truly finished. Lately I have been using that experience – that moment of feeling misunderstood – to reflect on my own blind spots. What assumptions do I make about other people that might get in the way of truly seeing them? Because research shows that hidden biases are pervasive and people make unconscious assumptions based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, disability status, and nationality. These blind spots can potentially lead to bad decision making, which is bad for business.
At PwC we’ve decided to address this problem by investing in blind spots training for newly hired and newly promoted professionals who comprise over 17,000 people each year. Instead of treating diversity as a value to believe in, we are positioning it as a skill that requires practice.
Recognize we all have unconscious bias – The first step is understanding that our brains are wired to make quick decisions without conscious thought, so while we may not be able to erase blind spots, we can slow down to manage them.
Explore the potential impact of your behavior – We need to understand that our actions, words and attitude affect others. For example, press for more details when you hear vague comments like “she’s just not ‘ready’ for promotion” or “he’s not a good fit for this team”.
Act with intention – We need to stress objective criteria rather than relying on our intuition. That means thinking about who we are reaching out to first for help, opportunities, plum projects etc.
Learn to change the outcomes – We need to encourage open, candid and respectful conversations about how our behaviors are affecting our relationships and business decisions.
Diversity is a journey. When I first joined PwC 25 years ago, sexual orientation was not something business leaders talked about, but as society changed so did we. Yet even today, a recent survey found that while 80% of heterosexual people polled think LGBT people shouldn’t “have to hide” who they are at work, less than half those people would feel comfortable hearing LGBT co-workers talk about their social lives and dating. In the face of statistics like this, I could not be prouder of how my firm has embraced LGBTQ and other diversity issues.
The evolution of the firm has paralleled my own life. As I have become more comfortable being truthful and authentic about who I am, the firm has increased support of inclusion and diversity for women, people of all races and religions, those with visible and invisible disabilities and members of the LGBT community. Businesses like PwC have even helped change history by being on the right side of issues like equal marriage benefits before they were legalized, and that helps move the needle toward powerful change.
As a newly appointed Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, I feel inspired to make even more positive change. The promise of diversity is that individuals can bring all aspects of themselves to the workplace without fear of being judged. We all want to reach our full potential and to achieve that we all need to acknowledge and overcome any blind spots.