Look Around You: What Don’t You See?

Portraits in the hallway.

Your team.


The About Us page on your website.

When you look closely at the things and people you’re surrounded by every day at work, do you get the sense that maybe you need to call shenanigans? Are all the portraits hanging in the company lobby of male leaders? Do your team members look and think an awful lot like you? When reviewing a candidate’s resume, do you make assumptions based on the person’s name or address? Does your “About Us” page with bios of top management reflect the demos of your stakeholders? It’s safe to say that none of our organizations score perfectly on this test. But there are actions we can take to mitigate these subconscious biases, and many of you have the power to make those changes today within your own company.

As communicators, it’s beholden on you to speak up when your brand’s reputation is unwittingly sending the wrong message. Some of the changes are harder to make. You may say about the CEO portraits that your company’s leadership has been all male; you can’t change the past. But you can suggest a more balanced visual gallery. You may say that the About Us page on your website highlights the top people at your company. If the top people are all white, is that alright? Time to launch that Diversity Hiring Committee.

Iris Bohnet, behavioral economist at Harvard University, speaking at a recent conference celebrating top women in TV and communication, spoke of “design intervention.” Evaluating how you design everything from your physical workplace to your hiring practices is a first step toward breaking down the bias barriers that set us back in so many ways.

In her new book, “What Works: Gender Equality by Design,” she describes a 1970s experiment among the major orchestras in the U.S. in which auditions were held behind curtains to prevent bias in hiring. The likelihood of a female musician advancing to the next round increased 50%.

Another, more mundane example (not in Bohnet’s book, but from my own 1970s TV viewing experience) is the Dating Game, which understood the powerful influence of a potential mate’s physical attributes. Better to hide them behind a wall and just listen.

What if, when seeking job candidates, we removed the name at the top of resume, along with any identifying gender or racial factors for that candidate? How would the composition of your team change?

The people on your team are a reflection of your company’s brand and public voice.  These team members are not only looking out for the company, they are looking around the company. What do they see? Is a woman more likely to stay on board if she is the only female at the management meeting? Is someone with a last name that conjures prejudicial thoughts ever going to make it to the interview stage? Does the About Us page on your site look homogeneous, to put it mildly?

As Bohnet notes in her book: “Most organizations confronted with such simple design choices act unthinkingly. When entering a boardroom, you typically meet the previous – typically all male – company leaders. Correcting this sort of gender inequality through design is the very definition of low-hanging fruit, or at about the height one hangs a picture.”

The communications team, in partnership with senior management and Human Resources, can play an integral role in designing a more diverse future for their organization.

— Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz

Circa 1946: Vice-presidents of Delaware Corporation sitting at table in board room.  (Photo by Jerry Cooke/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Circa 1946: Vice-presidents of Delaware Corporation sitting at table in board room. (Photo by Jerry Cooke/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)