Individuals: The Key to Fostering Inclusion

July 11, 2019
7 min
tim gouw bwki71ap y8 unsplash 545x363 1

True changes on the inclusion front must start with individuals because changes in rules and policies may be largely ineffective.

The Cycle of Inclusion

The interactions between an individual’s inclusive beliefs and decisions and our social structures of inclusion are depicted in Figure 1.  Naturally, they both affect one another. From our social structure comes rules and policies as well as perceptions and biases, all shaping the way individuals think.  The decisions and actions from the individual level feed into as well as shape our social structure through the power pipeline. As individuals move into more executive positions, their position allows them to shape and change the social structure that affects the way people think and act.

Figure 1.  The Cycle of Inclusion

Individuals: The Key to Fostering Inclusion

Through the decisions of our leaders, our social structure designs policies that affect our decisions and can therefore potentially influence individuals to act more inclusively.  Our social structure also shapes our biases and perceptions through advertising, education and media. For example, unless we have authentic relationships with individuals from another social category, much of our information about people in that category comes from the television and movies we watch or the social media with which we engage.

In corporate America, individuals gain more power to change corporate structure as they move through this pipeline from entry-level to management and then to the C-suite positions.  In politics, the power pipeline is the progression from social activism to city official to state official and potentially to national leader.

The Current Social Structure

Our biases (which are shaped by our social structure) make it less likely some individuals will progress through the power pipeline.  Systematically, individuals from particular social groups do not progress to positions of power. This means the group of individuals sitting at the decision-making table are not representative of the general population.

Among those with the most social, political, or economic power there is little gender and racial representation.  In the US Senate, there are 25 women and 10 people of color (CAWP, 2019).  In education, there are 32.2% women and 19.2% people of color at the full professor rank and only 30% of college presidents are women (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2018; Moody, 2018). Out of the top 100 highest grossing movies in 2018, only 16 were directed by a person of color and only 4 were directed by women (Blauvelt, 2019).  Among the world’s billionaires, 11.7% are women (many of whom have inherited their fortune from fathers or late husbands) and less than 1% are people of color (Frank, 2018).  Social media architects, the founders and CEOs of the 15 most popular social media networks and sites,  are mostly white men. Of the founders, only 2.6% were female and 15.8% were nonwhite and among the current CEOs there is only one woman (7.1%) and two people of color (15.8%) (Brenner, 2018). 

Figure 2.  The Corporate Pipeline, 2018 (McKinsey & Co, 2018)

Individuals: The Key to Fostering Inclusion

Only 4.8% and 3.2% of Fortune 500 companies have CEOs that are a woman or a person of color, respectively.  Figure 2 demonstrates in detail how representation of social groups changes through the ranks of business. As these statistics demonstrate women and people of color are not progressing through the power pipeline.

Pathways to Enhance Inclusion

In this framework, there are two ways to tackle our inclusion problem.  First, we can adapt the rules set out by the social design, with the goal of making changes in individual behavior and thoughts.  These more inclusive behaviors would feedback into the social design through the power pipeline and reinforce these structural changes. Second, we can tackle the problem at an individual level.  Then as the power pipeline is filled and fostered it will be representative of our general population because individuals will be more inclusive. Through the pipeline, individuals will bring those inclusive ideas to the structural level. Changes in the social structure and design would follow, supporting the original individual change toward inclusivity.  Either shift, if successful, will change our status quo permanently because it is self-reinforcing overtime.

Change Must Start with Individuals

If those designing inclusive rules and policies do not appropriately represent all social groups then we cannot expect that those rules and polices will fully address our current inclusion challenges.  Not only are there too few individuals representing some groups among those in power, those who do sit at the social design table may not feel psychologically safe enough to authentically contribute to the policy making discussion. Psychological safety, the belief we can freely express our ideas, is a key driver of engagement.  (See Jacobs, 2013; Kahn, 1990; May, Gilson and Harter, 2010).

Additionally, if the unconscious biases among individuals are left unaddressed then policies meant to enhance inclusion and promote diversity among leaders may not be endorsed and applied to their full potential.  For instance, rules put into place to ensure representative promotion do not address that those considering promotions are susceptible to the availability bias, a bias that will cause white men to be promoted disproportionately more often that other categories of people (Wysall, 2018; Arnold, Crawford and Khalifa, 2016).  With so many white men in positions of power, the availability bias leads us to associate white men with positions of power and we likely believe they must be good at their jobs and are effective leaders.  On the other hand, when we encounter a black woman, how many instances are there “available” to our brains where black women are powerful? The number pales in comparison to that for white men, so we do not automatically intuit that she will be good at her job and be an effective leader.

While the effectiveness of structural change is limited by representation and individual biases, we can focus on individual inclusive behavior and make a difference.  By combatting unconscious biases and changing our habits of interacting we can make a difference at the individual level—one that will flow up the power pipeline and change our social design.  


Arnold, N. W., Crawford, E. R., & Khalifa, M. (2016). Psychological Heuristics and Faculty of Color: Racial Battle Fatigue and Tenure/Promotion. Journal of Higher Education, 87(6), 890–919. 

Blauvelt, C., et al. (2019, February 26). The 100 all-time greatest films directed by women. IndieWire. 

Brenner, C. (2018, July 18). 15 most popular social media networks and sites [+60 data points]. G2. 

Center for American Women and Politics. (2019). Women in the U.S. Congress 2019 [fact sheet]. 

Frank, R. (2018, May 5). The share of women billionaires is actually falling. CNBC. 

Full-time instructional faculty members, by gender, rank, and race or ethnicity, Fall 2016. (2018, August 19). The Chronical of Higher Education, 64(41). 

Jacobs, H. (2013). An examination of psychological meaningfulness, safety, and availability as the underlying mechanisms linking job features and personal characteristics to work engagement. Retrieved from FIU Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 

Kahn, W. (2017). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of Management Journal, 33(4). 

May, D., Gilson, R., & Harter, L. (2004). The psychological conditions of meaningfulness, safety and availability and the engagement of the human spirit at work. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 77(1), 11-37. 

McKinsey&Company. (2018). Women in the workplace 2018 [PDF file]. 

Moody, J. (2018, July 5). Where are all the female college presidents? Forbes. 

Whysall Z. (2018) Cognitive Biases in Recruitment, Selection, and Promotion: The Risk of Subconscious Discrimination. In: Caven V., Nachmias S. (Eds), Hidden Inequalities in the Workplace. 

John Paul

Related Articles

See All
July 25th
Operational excellence is the application of knowledge and wisdom ...
August 18th
“Diversity is about creating space. It's a fundamental and i ...
April 8th
With the sudden rise and spread of COVID-19, along with the neces ...
Develop your people, scale your business.
Grow your people, grow your business.
Get ideas delivered to you
Sign up to read our latest report ideas on employee behaviors, cultures and professional habits.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.