Among the panelists: Amy Lou Abernethy of Amp Creative, left, and Javier Barrientos of T-Mobile (Photos by Eric Hwang)

Individuals carry all sorts of bias around with them, but so do the systems that run our lives. How to mitigate the problem in the workplace? It helps to consider that systems don’t operate autonomously; they’re made by people. They become conduits to express–and perhaps even enforce–what their makers think and feel. 

Indeed, systems operate according to the many-layered biases of their developers, noted Amy Lou Abernethy, CEO of Amp Creative, an enterprise-learning company. “And the system won’t solve itself. It takes people coming together to overcome these [barriers]. It’s tandem work that needs to be done.”

Workplace bias was the focus of conversation among a panel of experts on diversity and inclusion at a recent From Day One conference in Seattle, moderated by veteran broadcast journalist Enrique Cerna

“There isn’t a silver bullet” to mitigate the problem, acknowledged panelist Shinder Dhillon, vice president for diversity and inclusion at Fortive, the industrial-tech giant. She emphasized both the individual and communal work to be done. Companies need to foster a culture of personal responsibility and accountability to an organizational standard of diversity. “From my perspective,” she said, “everyone owns inclusion.”

While that’s a valid expectation, many marginalized people in the workplace lack the access to decision-making power that would improve equitable outcomes for themselves.  In spite of the popularity of employee resource groups (ERGs), it’s still typically the system that decides the nature, frequency, and quality of their assignments, promotions, and salaries.

Javier Barrientos, director of diversity and inclusion for T-Mobile, believes the system often drives inequity and exclusion. “You and I being great inclusionists won’t necessarily change the system,” he said. “The system owns D&I. Every country, every company has systems [that are] barriers to it. [They are] codified and hardened into policies, practices, laws, and software,” a point typically ignored in conversations about behavioral models of D&I, he said.  

The full panel, from left: Charlotte Flanagan of DocuSign, Abernethy, Barrientos, Shinder Dhillon of Fortive, and moderator Enrique Cerna

Emphasizing principles of inclusive design, Abernethy described ways in which bias is often programmed into the products we use. As an example, she cited the design of a typical virtual-reality (VR) headset. “If you have difficulty hearing, if you have difficulty moving your head or your hand, if you have difficulty wearing something on your head,” then the product, by design, is exclusive–not inclusive, she said.

Moderator Cerna gave voice to what many of us think countless times in a week, maybe a day, but do not necessarily say: “With leadership at the top, they’d better be the ones that are out in front of this, but are they?”

To this question, Abernethy suggested an incentive: leaders’ bonuses should be tied to hitting D&I goals, plain and simple. Responded Charlotte Flanagan, director of diversity and inclusion for DocuSign:  “Leaders need to be aware of the systems of oppression before we begin to implement those sorts of goals.”

The bottom line seems to be this:  Make the exception the rule. Everyone whose whole lives and workplace experiences have happened in the margins must finally be invited and escorted to the center, where power must be shared equitably. 

Carla Bell is a greater Seattle-area freelance writer published by the Seattle Times, Crosscut, The News Tribune, and others.