By Ellen McGirt
May 9, 2019

What if we’re going about this inclusion thing all wrong?

This is the gently persuasive idea behind Inclusion Nudges, a nonprofit organization founded in 2013 to research, collect, and share the best behavioral insights to help hapless humans become better at navigating our inevitable blind spots.

It was co-founded by Lisa Kepinski and Tinna Nielsen, two experts who were looking for a better way. “As former internal leaders of D&I in corporations, we now conduct research from a practical application, D&I practitioner perspective…what we wished we had available when we were internals,” Kepinski tells me via LinkedIn. They share what they learn freely and invite others to do the same via their open-source platform.

Nielsen, who is an anthropologist, outlined their philosophy in an insightful TEDx talk that begins with one of the most charming gotcha-moments in D&I lore. (The audience is primarily European, so American viewers will likely guess where she’s going right away. But still, she nails it.)

Then, she describes the crux of the problem: Most people understand that inclusion is a noble virtue and want to do the right thing. We even think of ourselves as open-minded. But our brains are beset with powerful programming that leads us astray, a form of cultural malware that compels us to quickly assess some people as competent, empathetic, and all the good leadership things, and others as not measuring up.

By way of example, she cites research showing that the ideal of “corporate masculinity” is widely accepted in Asia, Europe, and North America, a norm that benefits only a few of us. “It affects who we hire, promote… and how we buy into their ideas,” she says. The problem that inclusion needs to crack is one of awareness. “What and who are we blindly seduced by?”

But rather than tackling the grand moral issues associated with bias, Kepinski and Nielsen suggest that behavioral and system changes, consistently applied, can begin to help the individual brain form new patterns and companies to make progress.

Some nudges are now familiar, like blind auditions for classical musicians, or scrubbing gender and race identifiers from resumes during hiring.

Others are subtle “aha moments,” like reframing work arrangement schemes so that any person in any role may opt-in to a flexible schedule, not just working mothers who may be (correctly) worried about being perceived as not pulling their weight. “It addresses the bias that flex work is ‘for less committed employees’ or only women by making it for all,” they say.

To contribute to their research, here’s a short survey they’re currently running that explores how included virtual workers are or aren’t feeling. (Note: Because this is a global survey, it doesn’t ask people to identify by race due to country-by-country challenges with different concepts, terminology, legal issues, etc. Certain regional surveys do ask about race.)

Still, it promises to be illuminating. “Our driver with this current research was that we’ve seen a lot of work on inclusion in the physical workplace but less so in the virtual workplace,” says Kepinski. “While many of the recommendations that I’ll write up in the findings report will be based on behavioral insights, not all will be nudges – some may be policy recommendations.”

Either way, I plan to nudge my way to a more open mind. We all should. “To get the needed changes at the pace we need today,” says Nielsen, we’re going to need “a global movement to set out to make inclusiveness spread faster and make it stick.”

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