Diversity & Inclusion of Looks in the Workplace Isn’t Just Great for Fashion, It’s Great for Corporate America

I’ve sat on panel after panel but this is a first for me.  I am the only light skinned person in this entire conference, speaking about beauty in the workplace.  And I’m bubbling with excitement (and a bit of fish-out-of-water feeling) because I’m sharing the stage with four gorgeous, brilliant, fierce business women who are blowing me away with their poise, warmth and insights.  My friend Ty Heath of Linkedin organized an amazing conference for women of color, TransformHER, and she asked me to join this particular panel.  No question, I jumped at the chance.  Ty gave me an opportunity to discuss the truly important topic of beauty in corporate America.  While I write about this issue in Beautyskew, I’ve never had the honor to SPEAK about it.  I am thrilled that this topic is finally getting some real attention. 

I can totally understand why this is a key topic for the conference.  There is no denying that African-American women face a double challenge: they often have to concern themselves with BOTH not appearing too feminine or too “black.”  In this era of greater diversity an inclusion, the business world has loosened up the expectations of how we should look in the office. But let’s face it, we still have a long way to go.  I, myself, am still challenged with not looking either too sexy or too dowdy or too corporate. I wrote an angst-filled post about this last year when I had to prep for a huge speech in Norway.  What a pain to have to a. worry about what to wear, and b. have to curb our true selves so so others can feel comfortable.  Why is being comfortable so good anyway?

Diversity of looks goes beyond even ethnic identity or sexual identity.  In a recent Washington Post article, “Hey Goldman Sachs, does your dress code allow thigh-high boots?” the author, Buzz Bissinger, points out that a shift to casual attire may indicate a loosening of rules but doesn’t demonstrate a broad acceptance of divergent looks and styles despite the company’s claims of diversity and inclusion.  There’s still a big gap between allowing chinos in the office and being tolerant of all styles.  He continues to write: “… (A) shift to more “casual” attire is fine, as long as the choices are dictated by what others want, others think, others find appropriate. Which, of course, is antithetical to what fashion should be about: individuality, freedom, self-expression. What one wears, not just on heightened days but every day, should never be captive to anyone else except yourself. It is only clothing, which, as far as I know, is not harmful or lethal — unlike, for example, subprime mortgages. “

Bissinger’s passion is palpable.  How we look isn’t something to take lightly.  It’s fraught with anxiety, judgement, and insecurity. As Bissinger writes: “… In our society of self-suppression, nothing is more subject to instant judgment than clothing. You are defined by what you wear, and if you wear anything different from the mainstream, the furtive stars come out. Then come the snickers. Then come the inevitable stereotypes associated with styles of dress. Worst of all comes your own overwhelming self-consciousness, the sense that somehow, some way, you are actually being offensive by choosing to wear what you want, and that it’s better to be a lemming of conformity, boxy and boring, stultified and stifled, but not sticking out. So you jettison what is most sacred of all, your own sense of self.”

What Bissinger doesn’t stress as much is how our fashion can also also be a source of pride, fun, self-expression and happiness.  And these feelings undoubtedly make us more successful.  So, yes, it’s about time we engage, seriously, in the topic of beauty and fashion in the workplace.  From our hair styles to our clothing, to our thigh high boots, our ability to show up as we want is critical for our senses of self and of confidence. But, as I say on the panel, it doesn’t just impact ourselves.  It signals to our colleagues, our friends and families that we don’t need to hide ourselves, but rather embrace who we all are with pride and happiness.  And doesn’t a happier, more confident, more diverse workplace lead to a more corporate success? No question!

For a full look at the panel watch this:

Can Technology Be Biased? This Beauty Contest Reveals How Much

 

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Before I start, allow me to thank you all for your super interesting comments on last week’s post.   I love hearing and learning from all of you!

And now for our regularly scheduled program…:)

For about a year I’ve come across a few stories about beauty contests being judged by robots, that is Artificial Intelligence.   By measuring people’s (let’s face it, women’s) facial structures these robots can accurately determine beauty.  And given the judges are robots versus actual humans, we assume that the judgements are devoid of cultural or ethnic biases.  I’ve read these stories with mild interest.  But this time, a recent story stuck with me…and not in a good way.

I’m sure such a contest raises a whole host of issues for many of you.  First, I imagine many of you oppose such contests — humans or no humans as judges.  How can one judge beauty anyway?  Second, so much of physical beauty emanates from within.  I’m not talking about inner beauty.  That’s a whole other subject.  I’m talking about the energy, the light, the passion that springs forth from someone making then either more or less beautiful.  Can a robot really judge that?

But those issues aside, my biggest concern with this contest is what is conveys about technology as a whole.  The results of these contests showed how actually, how terribly biased A.I. can be!

According to this article in NextWeb, the contest drew over 6,000 applications from across 100 countries. And despite the obvious diversity of beauty that the robots were exposed to, out of the 44 winners, only a few were Asian, one was black, and the rest were white.  None had dark skin.

WTF!

Are the foolproof “complex algorithms” that biased?  I’m afraid so.  How can that be?  Easy.  A human being has designed them that way.  And that’s pretty scary.

I’m not saying the engineers behind the algorithms intentionally developed them to be pro white.  It’s just that bias is going to inevitable when the majority of the brilliant brains behind the development of technology are of a certain gender, ethnic background or culture.  No matter how much we try to rid ourselves of our biases, it’s super, super hard to erase the ones we don’t even know we have.

If technology can be biased when it comes to beauty, could it also be biased when it comes to truly understanding the user and what s/he needs?  Or can it be biased with regards to places on the map or particular destinations?  You get the point.

So what do we do?  It’s not a new news that we should push harder for diversity our work places.  It makes for diversity of thought and ideas.  But it goes deeper than that.  Diversity ensures that the seemingly “judge-free,” non-biased technologies we create actually hold up to that expectation.  When humans are led by their biases, we forgive them.  Because, well, it’s “human” not to be perfect.  But technology shouldn’t make mistakes, right?  It can’t be biased.  So if technology, or in this case A.I., declares someone fit or beautiful or smart, well then it must be so!    And the result?  People deem the seemingly unbiased robots as arbiters of truth.

I’m not the first person to call for more diversity.  It’s a MUST.  But I’m also calling on all of us to challenge our notions of how “smart” our technology really is.  Believe me, I LOVE technology.  I’m benefiting from it in all aspects of my life, and, most, importantly in my job.  But let’s realize that behind all technology are human beings.  This recognition should mostly strike a sense of admiration in human kind. After all it takes a buttload of brilliance to be creating the amazing technology we have, and will have in the coming years.  But it should also open our eyes to that fact that technology isn’t fool proof, totally unbiased or “right” all the time.

Let’s remember, human beings are the smartest, most elegant and beautiful “machines” that exist.  We are complex, emotional and gorgeous in so many diverse ways.  We don’t need a technology-driven beauty contest to prove that.