One of the most common things we hear as diversity, equity, and inclusion specialists is: “We already have a zero-tolerance policy to discrimination at work. We don’t have a problem”.
That sounds a bit too good to be true. Why? Let’s take a look at the data. For example in Europe, the majority of BIPOC (black, indegenous & people of colour) have experienced discrimination in the European technology industry. Here in Finland for example the overall percentage of discrimination towards LGBTQIA+ people at work is higher than that of the whole sample’s. The majority of people with disabilities experience discrimination in the labour market and at workplaces. And these are just a couple of examples scratching the surface.
The first essential step in achieving zero discrimination at work is to understand and recognize both the root causes as well as the different forms of discrimination. Only then we can start building organizations where everyone can come to work as their true selves without a fear of discrimination. To get there, we need to understand Diversity, Equity & Inclusion – DEI.
What do we mean by discrimination and DEI?
Discrimination refers to a circumstance where a person is treated less favourably than another person in a comparable situation because of a personal characteristic such as gender, cultural or ethnic background, religion or other conviction, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientation, age, nationality, origin, language, appearance. It can be both direct and indirect.
DEI is not only an essential part of corporate social responsibility but also directly linked to work against discrimination. In short, diversity refers to both differences between people and representation of various identities. These different demographic, experimental and/or cognitive differences can be visible or invisible. Equity on the other hand means an active effort towards recognizing different potential barriers that people can face in working life in order to develop processes and practices to be more fair for all so that more and more of us could reach their full potential. Inclusion refers to an active and conscious practice of including people and creating environments where people can feel psychologically safe and a sense of belonging.
At deidei, we observe societal changes and strive to understand how they are reflected in organizations and their everyday realities. We operate at the point where society meets working life, and our work and impact largely stems from the synergy between the two. Our mission is to support organizations on their DEI transformation journeys by helping them recognize what’s preventing them from achieving zero discrimination and how to move forward.
Understanding discrimination through a DEI lens
Awareness about DEI provides us with better tools to understand discrimination in its full scope as well as the different needs and realities of our employees and colleagues. To better shed light on the relationship between DEI and discrimination, I will use unconscious biases as one concrete example.
Unconscious bias is often defined as prejudices or judgements in favor of or against one thing, person, or group, and it occurs automatically as the brain makes mental "shortcuts'' to process decision making and information quickly. They are like snap judgements made on the subconscious level. It’s normal to have unconscious biases – we all have them. However, when left unchecked, they can lead to discriminatory behaviour and practices. A study made by Akhlaq Ahmad and funded by Kone Foundation found out that even having a non-Finnish name decreases one’s chances to get a job interview with the exact same skills, merits & experience as others.
This is a good example of how unconscious bias in action can lead to discriminatory outcomes. By understanding where discrimination comes from, how it affects employees and what your organization can do about it, you start getting closer to zero discrimination at work. So the next time you hear someone saying “we already have a zero-tolerance policy to discrimination at work”, ask yourself – is that really enough?
Sunna Mbye is a DEI Specialist with an academic background from International Relations.
deidei is a Helsinki-based consulting agency helping organizations on their DEI transformation journeys.
State of European Tech 2021 by Atomico
Akhlaq Ahmad (2019): When the Name Matters: An Experimental Investigation of Ethnic Discrimination in the Finnish Labor Market