By Gloria Lombardi

Conversations around the importance of diversity at work have come a long way since the advent of the Internet – the digital age had prompted companies to be more open and transparent about their conduct. In an ideal world, businesses would realise that they have almost no choice but to provide a space for those discussions. They would see a diverse workforce as an asset to innovation.

Well, of course, this is the ideal world. The reality seems to picture a different scenery. “There are a few organisations that are doing well with their diversity strategies. Sadly, I don’t think that anyone is yet at a point where they should be really applauded,” says Founder and CEO of Paradigm, Joelle Emerson (pictured right).

Emerson uses a metric-driven approach to help companies cultivate a diverse workforce. She does so by tackling the problem across the entire organisation – from recruiting, to communications, policy and retention.

I wanted to talk with Emerson to explore the barriers to diversity and what organisations can do to bridge the gap. In this interview she shares advice on how to avoid biases, the relevance of leadership commitment and women in executives roles, as well as the opportunities given by technology to enforce workplace diversity.

Gloria Lombardi: You come from a slighly unique background – before founding your own company you were a women’s rights employer lawyer. What prompted you to launch Paradigm?

Joelle Emerson: In my career as a lawyer, I was practicing women’s right employment law, and I focused on pay and promotion discrimination, sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination. Through that work, I started to see certain patterns emerging within companies that were causing the problems that led clients to my office.

After not very long, I became frustrated by the fact that my work was entirely reactive – everything I was doing was coming in at the very end of the problem. I had very little, if any, influence on the patterns of discrimination and bias that my clients faced before they got to my office.

I decided that I wanted to have more of an impact; I wanted to do work that could actually prevent these problems as opposed to addressing them only once they had occurred.

GL: How did you make the actual swicth – from being a lawyer to setting up a business model that specifically focuses on the use of data and social science to drive diversity?

JE: My educational background before law school is in sociology and organisational equality. I knew that there was plenty of research in fields like social psychology and organizational behaviour, on the strategies most likely to be effective in creating a more inclusive workplace. I decided to explore who was putting this research into practice.

Disappointingly, I didn’t see anyone doing this in an organized way in the technology industry. Many of the people I spoke to who were looking for solutions to foster diversity and inclusion within their organisations were unfamiliar with this body research. Oftentimes they were even engaging in efforts completely at odds with what studies tell us is most effective. For example, I’ve seen many companies still rely heavily on strategies like ‘sensitivity training’, while a lot of research shows that this is ineffective at best, and can be actually counterproductive.

At that point I realised that there was a need to bridge the gap between this great world of research and the many people who really wanted to cultivate more diversity within their company, so I founded Paradigm.

GL: What should organisations do to start bridging the diversity gap?

JE: Organisations should take the same approach to their diversity efforts as they take to any other business challenge. They should measure data; they should start with a clear sense of what their barriers are, and be very specific about it.

Then, companies should draw on social science research (for example, research on ‘unconscious bias’) to develop strategies to address these barriers, and embed these strategies into people processes and company structure.

GL: Could you tell me more about unconscious biases? What sort of strategies can be implemented to address them effectively?

JE: Unconscious bias is the tendency to rely on subconscious beliefs about any subject – but in this case it would be about people – and then, to make decisions based on those subconscious beliefs rather than actual data.

It is a very common, and sort of inevitable, part of how human’s process information. The problem is that, when we rely on this strategy in making decisions about people, we often over-prioritise irrelevant information and filter out very important information.

If a company wants to be more diverse, there are things they can do to minimise the impact of the unconscious biases that we all have.

GL: For example? What sort of strategies can be implemented to address unconscious biases effectively?

JE: A good example is with the interviewing process. Every time we are evaluating another person, biases influence us. But, research shows that when people have to articulate the basis of their decisions, they are slightly less likely to be influenced by biases. So, a good strategy at a corporate level would be to ensure that everyone who conducts the interview writes specific feedback about the candidate and explains the reasons for their decision on whether to hire that person or not. Structured interviews are also a highly effective strategy – they help to minimise biases as well as to identify who is going to be a good fit for the organisation.

Structured interviews ensure that every candidate interviewed for the same role is asked the same questions, and that the organisation has a rubric to evaluate all their answers. Essentially, the benefit of structured interviews is that it allows companies to compare apples to apples, ensuring that the company is evaluating everyone against the same types of questions. Regardless of who is conducting the interview, the standards of evaluation stay the same, and the organisation determines in advance what a great answer looks like and what a poor answer looks like, so this isn’t left up to individual interview discretion.

GL: What other concrete pieces of advice could we give to companies who are brand new to this conversation on diversity?

JE: If you have done nothing before and are not yet at the point of identifying barriers and starting to implement strategies, a good place to start would be a workshop or training to raise employees’ understanding of biases as well as to discuss actual strategies that both the company and the individuals can use to start making less biased decisions.

Also, reading and sharing knowledge across the organisation can help colleagues become more aware of those issues. There are great books out there that can help people familiarise themselves with the topic.

GL: What are the top three books you would recommend as a starting point?

JE: ‘Thinking Fast and Slow‘ by Daniel Kahneman is excellent in explaining how our brain works and how we make decisions. It is not about diversity per se, but it is a great book to start thinking about biases.

Another excellent book is ‘Whistling Vivaldi‘ by Claude M. Steele, which covers the topic of ‘stereotype threat’. It describes how people from underrepresented backgrounds may perform poorly in contexts where their social group is stereotyped. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – they have anxiety around the stereotype, which actually leads to underperformance.

Finally, ‘The Difference‘ by Scott Page explains very well the benefits of diversity to innovation within teams.

GL: Based on your studies as well as work with large organisations, which companies are doing well in promoting diversity?

JE: There are few organisations that are doing well overall with their diversity strategies. Sadly, I don’t think that anyone is yet at a point where they should be really applauded for outcomes.

Some companies are on the right path and engaging in meaningful efforts. Several businesses are approaching components of diversity very well, but no single company is doing everything that could be done comprehensively. Google is a good example of a company that clearly doesn’t have this all figured out yet, because they are not very diverse. But, they are doing interesting things, including using people analytics to try to be very specific about where unconscious biases are coming into play. So while they aren’t there yet, they might be on the right path.

And then there are corporations such as Vodafone who have implemented important policies around flexibility for new parents and employees returning to work after parental leave.

GL: Part of your work is focused on women in leadership. What should we do (more or differently) in this space to bring about real change?

JE: The reason why there aren’t many female executives has to do with the internal barriers of a company – everything from the way we treat mothers who go on leave to look after their children (and come back with a huge career disadvantage), to development programs and mentoring opportunities.

Research shows that women and minorities are less likely to get mentors than white men. The same apply with networking – even exclusion from informal networking events can have a significant impact on women’s ability to advance in their career.

So, the advice I would give is to people in position of power – think about all the formal and informal opportunities that lead people to succeed within the company. Be very deliberate about distributing those opportunities evenly. Go out of your way to mentor and support women and people from other underrepresented backgrounds in advancing their careers.

Unless the leadership team goes out of its way, it will be very hard to close existing gaps. What will bring about real change is leaders taking this seriously.

GL: How is technology enabling organisations in their diversity journey?

JE: Some great technologies have started addressing the problem.

Textio, for example, is trying to minimise one of the barriers to diversity in a scalable way. They do text analysis with job descriptions using machine learning and natural language processing. Their tool can detect whether particular words or phases within the job description are likely to attract men rather than women. And, they give you feedback as you are creating your job description, in real-time. It is a sort of spell-check for gender bias, and an exciting tool for large companies that want to cultivate a diverse workforce.

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate