Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Perception and Human Error

May 20, 2021   ·   0 Comments

By Luis R. Chacin

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada recently released its first report on the representation of women, visible minorities, Indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities on the boards of directors and senior management roles of publicly traded companies. This report is the result of amendments made in 2018 to the Canada Business Corporations Act that introduced a new requirement for publicly traded companies to disclose information on the diversity on their boards and senior management teams.

The report states that 17% of all board seats are held by women, 4% by members of visible minorities, 0.3% by persons with disabilities and 0.3% by Indigenous peoples. With regard to senior management positions, women hold 25%, visible minorities hold 9%, persons with disabilities hold 0.6% and Indigenous peoples hold 0.2%. The report concludes that these results are “in contrast to the diversity of the Canadian population available to work.”

But diversity, equity, and inclusion policies have been criticized. A recent opinion article published by the Globe and Mail discussed these policies in the context of academia and stated that “[a]t best, these policies evoke pity; at worst, they fuel resentment”. The article also refers to these policies as “profoundly patronizing” and the product of “unfettered cultish thinking”. I understand the criticism but, like most debates worth having, the issue is a bit more complicated than that.

Over the last nearly 40 years, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the “Charter”) has inspired some of the most interesting Supreme Court of Canada decisions concerning the balance between the rights of the individual and the legitimate interests of a free and democratic society. In the context of equality rights, and building upon Canada’s British legal tradition allowing French Canadians to maintain their language, religious customs and most of their civil law system, there have been a number of decisions on the difference between formal and substantive equality and the addition of analogous prohibited grounds of discrimination such as sexual orientation. However, the Charter only applies to state action, not to the conduct of private persons. Private persons, including individuals and corporations, are generally subject to provincial human rights legislation. In Ontario, for example, the Human Rights Code provides that every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, accommodation, and employment, without discrimination based on prohibited grounds such as race, creed, gender identity, or disability.

But there is much more beyond the framework of our legal system that provides legitimacy to our social order, and conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion are more about legitimacy and fairness and less about legal requirements. In particular, when people talk about diversity, equity and inclusion they are referring to how perception and human error in the process of hiring and promoting leads us to unconsciously give preference to candidates who look or sound like us from among otherwise similarly competent candidates.

Concepts such as “implicit bias”, “unconscious bias”, “cognitive bias”, as types of human errors in decision-making, have been thoroughly studied by neuroscientists and psychologists for decades. Psychologist and Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences laureate, Daniel Kahneman, explains that the way we think is driven by two systems in our brains: System 1 is fast, emotional, unconscious, and effortless; System 2 is slow, logical, conscious, and requires effort.

The vast majority of our day-to-day decisions are done by System 1 and involve “heuristic” thinking. Heuristic thinking is the process of associating new information with known patterns and mental shortcuts that allows us to make split-second decisions on a regular basis, but its susceptibility to error is often underestimated. For example, the decision (or gut feeling) to like or dislike a stranger the first time you meet them is often done so quickly that it almost feels like it is being done for you. We like to think that, after a longer interaction with the same stranger, the initial perceptions drawn from their general appearance, what they were wearing or what they were doing at the time, will be revised accordingly. But research shows that System 2 will generally try to rationalize and confirm the unconscious biases from System 1 and anchor any new information to that initial erroneous assessment. In other words, first impressions matter far more than we think.

These unconscious biases are what experts suggest is behind many perceived social injustices in the world, such as the prevalence of white men in positions of power when compared with their proportional representation in the populations of all individuals with similar qualifications. Admittedly, this debate is often skewed by the typical ideological prejudices of all branches of Critical Theory and a general disdain for history. For this reason, it is not surprising that well-intentioned positive discrimination policies may provoke backlash against women and minorities from otherwise reasonable people who are simply unaware of the role of System 1 in making unconsciously biased decisions that affect our social order and are, therefore, unable to engage in a meaningful conversation on the topic.

However, to the extent that unconscious bias leads to errors in decision-making, our efforts to correct those errors should not be controversial at all. At the same time, the thought that we are capable of accurately identifying the underpinnings of our current social order and the efficacy of any proposed solutions in making that order “fairer” is a matter of perception. At the end of the day, I take comfort in the fact that kindness (not pity or resentment) permeates Canadian culture and national identity, and the dialogue on diversity, equity, and inclusion will continue to move in the right direction.

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