John Devolle — Getty Images/Ikon Images
By Aubrey Blanche
January 19, 2017

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How can you play a role in advancing workplace equality?” is written by Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and inclusion at Atlassian.

One of the biggest misconceptions about workplace equality is believing it can be achieved when it’s someone else’s job. While executives and diversity leaders (myself included) have the power to set the tone and provide sponsorship for initiatives to promote a more equal footing for all employees, change can’t happen without everyone taking responsibility and action.

Every interaction with a co-worker, hiring decision, or assignment on a high-visibility project we give is an opportunity to either support (or thwart) workplace equality. After all, studies show gender and ethnically diverse companies are more likely to financially out-perform homogeneous ones. Being around people different from us also makes us more creative and diligent, and inspires us to work harder.

But while these are nice proof points, they mean nothing without taking action. Here’s how you can do your part to make your business a place where you and your colleagues can thrive.

Examine your own identity

Every person has multiple components to their identity, which influence how they experience the workplace in different ways. For example, an employee may be a man, but also an immigrant, father, Asian American, come from a low-income background, or any combination of these (and many other things). Many of us don’t often think about how each of these identities — and the experiences that come with them — play a role in our lives and professional successes. The reality is things like the social class we were born into, our gender and our skin color are enormously consequential in the kinds of opportunities we have, and how we are perceived in the world (and the workplace).

Take some time to ask yourself the following questions and answer them honestly:

  • What aspects of my identity are the most important (or obvious) to me?
  • How have these affected my experiences at work?
  • How would my experience be different if one of my identities were replaced with another? For instance, if I’m white, what would it be like if I were black? Or if I’m young, how might I be treated if I were in my 60s?

I’ve found this essay by an entrepreneur in Texas a good guide to this line of questioning; it’s an incredibly difficult but rewarding exercise. It creates awareness about your own opportunities and challenges, and honesty about how those may be different from what others experience.

By examining ourselves, we can develop a greater understanding of ourselves, a crucial tool to build empathy for others’ perspectives. This can help us be more caring, compassionate and inclusive colleagues.

Pay it forward

While you can’t go back and change someone’s childhood or alter their identity, you can make the decision to bolster them in other ways.

One of the best and most rewarding ways to help bolster someone’s career is through mentorship or sponsorship – though many people, and especially women (nearly 70% of women say they have never been a mentor because no one asked them to be), miss out on this opportunity. Don’t! Pay special attention to supporting people who are meaningfully different from you. We tend to instinctively gravitate towards mentees, employees to sponsor, and successors who look, sound, and act like ourselves. It requires more thoughtfulness and a long-term view to choose people who have meaningfully different perspectives, networks and ways of thinking. It’ll benefit you as much as it benefits your mentee or sponsee.

Question your gut

Despite a business climate where everyone is looking to make more decisions based on data, many of us still rely on our intuitions and pattern matching to make people decisions. ‘This guy felt like he’d fit in great here,’ we might say. Or, ‘I have a really good gut feeling about that CMO candidate. Hire her.’

However, our guts and brains consistently lie to us. While “unconscious bias” seems to be the buzzword of the moment, the concepts it refers to are very real. Everything from who we hire to who we nominate for stretch assignments, to who we see as ‘leadership material’ are strongly influenced by cognitive biases.

Instead of relying solely on your intuition, look for ways to use more empirical data to inform your decisions. This is not only a fairer approach, but ensures that everyone has the same chances to succeed (which means the best person really does get the job, assignment, or promotion). Ideas from Google’s re:Work project is a great place to start.

It’s a new year, and the issues we face as a nation with inequality are more apparent than ever.

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