Fighting Discrimination at the Root

Most decisions are made outside of our awareness, and unconscious biases affect our daily routine, according to consultant Nathalie Malige. She uses data and technology to prove that these unconscious “cognitive” biases affect the success of diversity programs, especially in the workplace. She works to reverse people’s unconscious biases that are often at the root of diversity and inclusion issues.

Malige, along with Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji, developed statistical tools that can measure and change deeply ingrained behaviors. As the CEO and founder of Diverseo, Malinge helps companies understand when their unconscious decisions affect overall performance and strategy. Before founding her company in 2006, Malige worked at AT Kearney, McKinsey, Diageo and Procter & Gamble.

Below are excerpts from an interview Malige did recently with Diversity Executive:

How does cognitive bias relate to diversity management?

Each time we see someone for the first time, we tend to provide attributes to this individual which might not correspond to the specific person in front of us. These attributes, which might shape our interactions with the individual, are often different from our conscious thoughts, and most current diversity approaches are ineffective to address them.

You recently conducted a study on biases against women in leadership positions. What were the results?

The results were unambiguous: while consciously, most business executives declare men and women are equally good leaders, unconsciously, the vast majority tend to associate leadership more strongly with unknown men than with famous female leaders. Such unconscious associations of men with leaders and females with helpers are widespread and deep. They explain why people facing a choice of promoting a man or woman quite often favor less competent men in leadership positions. They are also a core reason why women tend to “opt out.” Research has shown that we all tend to act according to the unconscious biases present in the culture in which we live.

What can diversity leaders do to address the unconscious biases that affect their workplace?

The first step for the diversity leader is to secure access to senior management and to some data. Our most successful programs have started with strategy and bias awareness seminars to generate awareness for the business impact of unconscious bias. Some organizations need more training to change behaviors, others a major overhaul of their HR processes to foster more objective decisions, others to change the culture and some a mix of both.

Why do you take a data-driven approach to this challenge in diversity?

Data is really helpful to derive more precise insights and develop practical, highly effective action plans. We use different types of data:

Demographics to understand workforce dynamics. Most of the time, management builds sets of wrong assumptions about barriers to diversity. The data act as an eye-opener. Also, once senior executives know exactly the strategic consequences of a workforce composition which is not aligned to their strategic goals, they immediately start acting.

We use HR data to identify the impact of HR actions and policies such as impact of various maternity schemes and leadership training for women.

We also use implicit association tests and other types of cognitive tools to uncover specific associations about social groups. Once these are identified, the impact of the diversity actions is significantly higher. For example, one of our clients has been investing for many years in changing perceptions of women as leaders. Explicitly, all thought women were poor leaders. Implicitly, they thought women were equally good leaders as men. The issue lied elsewhere.

Do you address other diversity issues besides female leadership? Are the tactics different for different challenges?

Many tactics or levers are the same for several diversity issues, but their content needs to be customized to the specific issues surfaced by the data analysis. Our transversal approach is aiming at identifying the most pressing diversity issues, mainly through data analysis, before tackling their root causes thanks to customized tools. The addressed diversity issues will therefore depend on the specific context. For example, we have quite often observed that cultural dexterity between different nationalities can be the main diversity challenge for corporate companies with a global footprint. In the U.S., our programs target quite often both gender and ethnicity.

Mary Camille Izlar is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at