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5 important diversity issues in the workplace for 2021

Black Lives Matter threw a spotlight on diversity issues in 2020. In 2021, workplace diversity, equity and inclusion issues are likely to become even more important.

2021 is likely to bring new opportunities for diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace -- but there will be challenges as well.

While by no means a complete list, these five diversity issues in the workplace have become some of the most urgent topics in human resources, and new developments are occurring all the time.

Here are five issues business and HR leaders need to consider.

1. Recruiters will need to confront their vulnerabilities

Researchers published a study in the science journal Nature at the beginning of this year that found evidence of recruiters' hiring biases.

Scientists examined data from a government job-hunting website and found evidence of occupational bias -- for example, women not being hired for stereotypically male professions -- as well as race and ethnicity discrimination. In addition, recruiters' hiring bias went up by as much as 20% if they looked at an application right before lunch or close to the end of the day.

Bias that occurs at particular times is unconscious, said Dominik Hangartner, an associate professor of public policy at ETH Zürich and lead author of the study.

"Maybe in those hours they rely more on stereotypes, heuristic decision-making, which leads to more discrimination," he said.

Takeaway: Recruiters should make extra effort to fight bias when tired or adjust processes to favor when they are more rested.

2. Diversity tools need vetting

A proliferation of new tools for inclusion, equity and diversity have appeared recently, but experts say HR departments need to confirm the tools aren't too good to be true.

Experts stress the importance of understanding who created the software and vendors being open about possible algorithmic biases.

"Look at who makes these tools," said Farzana Nayani, a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting and training expert in Los Angeles. "When they don't have diverse [development] teams, I can almost guarantee you, there's going to be bias in it."

Takeaway: HR should do in-depth due diligence on any so-called diversity tools.

3. Biden is opening the way for new efforts

President Joe Biden recently got rid of former President Donald Trump's executive order to essentially halt diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training by federal grant recipients and at federal contractors and agencies.

Trump's September order claimed that DEI training stokes division and belief in racial stereotypes. The executive order had been challenged twice in federal court.

"[Some employers] have recognized that they have deficiencies within their organization's culture," said David Lewis, president and CEO at OperationsInc, an HR consulting firm in Norwalk, Conn.

The revocation enables organizations to address those deficiencies.

Takeaway: Organizations can institute better diversity, inclusion and equity best practices in 2021, and as part of that, HR leaders will need to stay up to date as developments are evolving quickly.

4. Homogeneity plagues C-suite

CEOs and the higher-ups poised to become board members and CEOs are mostly white and male, according to a recent report from Stanford Graduate School of Business.

"You can be diverse in percentage counts, but it doesn't mean you have a lot of diversity when thinking about the flow of people through a company's hierarchy," wrote David Larcker, the James Irvin Miller professor of accounting, emeritus, at Stanford Graduate School of Business and study co-author. "Very few of [the diverse employees from those percentage counts] are able to process through to the top of a corporation. The avenue for non-diverse white males is more open."

Previous research concluded that women have 7% of the CEO jobs at Fortune 500 firms, and ethnically diverse employees have 9%. Larcker and study co-author Brian Tayan found that for Fortune 100 C+1 jobs -- jobs where the employee reports directly to the CEO -- women hold 25% of the jobs and racially diverse employees hold 16%.

Takeaway: The path to leadership roles should be a component of diversity, inclusion and equity initiatives.

5. AI bias needs close examination

Lawmakers in California and New York are considering legislation to combat AI bias, and Congress may follow their lead. Senate sources believe the Algorithmic Accountability Act, which would demand every automated decision system (ADS) be screened for AI bias, will be reintroduced now that the Democrats control the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Laws like those currently being considered in California and New York could be good for employers, said Ben Eubanks, principal analyst at Lighthouse Research & Advisory.

"The good thing about [the New York law] is that it would force employers to really understand how their systems are making decisions, what factors are being evaluated, and it should offer them some peace of mind that the tools are not biased against any specific populations," Eubanks said.

Takeaway: Now is a good time to become deeply knowledgeable about how AI tools work, for example, understanding how the recruiting tool algorithms work.

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