“Striving for social justice is the most valuable thing to do in life.” – Albert Einstein
It might be surprising to some people that Albert Einstein, one of my science idols, was also a vocal advocate for social justice. But when you understand that he was Jewish and the target of antisemitism in both Europe and America, you can understand why he used his platform as a celebrity physicist to draw attention to social injustice. He particularly advocated for African-American equality in the 1930s.
Cisco celebrates World Social Justice Week this week, a grassroots effort by Inclusive Communities. It is a topic very dear to me for a number of reasons. I am the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants to America, who experienced the warmest hospitality and the coldest shoulder sometimes in the same day. My mother, a computer programmer, was passed up for a promotion to the next level of her profession, because she was not “assertive” enough for others whose code she frequently corrected.
Throughout my life, I have frequently been one of very few women in the engineering class, the executive boardroom, and the sales conference, where I’ve often faced both conscious and unconscious cognitive bias. And while my struggle against others’ misinformed opinions has had its challenges, my experience pales when compared to what many groups around the world face—reduced access to economic, political, and social opportunities because of their gender, race, ethnicity, or beliefs.
It’s not just a matter of people being kind to one another (which in and of itself is very important), but in withholding opportunity from groups of people, the world misses out on the contributions and advancements of scientists such as Einstein, Philip Emeagwali (whose application was the first to apply a pseudo-time approach to reservoir modeling provided on a massively parallel supercomputer), Donna Strickland (winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics), and Lewis Howard Latimer (inventor of the carbon filament for Edison’s lightbulb).
Inclusion is also more profitable
Interestingly, studies have shown that those who perceive bias in the workplace are 2.6 times more likely (34 percent compared to 13 percent) to say they’ve withheld ideas and market solutions from others in the company over a six-month period. And those who perceive bias are greater than 3 times as likely (31 percent compared to 10 percent) to say that they’re planning to leave their current jobs within the year. The consequence of not addressing social biases in the workplace has considerable economic impact as well. One study shows it could be half a trillion dollars in the U.S. alone.
So, what is social justice?
According to The San Diego Foundation, social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities. Social justice seems so basic in theory, and yet in practice we continue to struggle as a society to make it a reality. Why is this? The explanation is nuanced and complicated—a mix of history, socioeconomics, and human psychology.
An explanation that resonated with me was made by Brené Brown in a recent podcast. She discusses dehumanization as the way that people and regimes justify withholding rights and resources from others. They tell themselves that various groups are in some way subhuman. Unfortunately, this has happened throughout history. The only way to counteract it is by calling this bias out when it happens and advocating for groups who have been overlooked or misinterpreted. This is accomplished by remaining curious and really seeking to understand others who are different from ourselves. In addition, we need to change the systems and processes where bias and the roots of social injustice have been formalized and ingrained.
Beliefs are important, but what is more important are the actions they inspire
I’m proud of Cisco for standing up for social justice. We have had very frank and tough internal conversations, including with our CEO Chuck Robbins and many guest speakers such as Darren Walker, the CEO of the Ford Foundation, and Helen Zia, a Chinese American journalist and activist for Asian American and LGBTQ rights. We have tremendous diversity on our executive team and insist on diversity on our interview panels.
I’m also proud that “Cisconians” have rallied around causes and organizations such as Girls Who Code, the Tech Challenge for Innovation, and Covenant House for homeless youth, which gives opportunity to children of all genders, races, ethnicities, and beliefs. Cisco is also a founding member of the World Economic Forum’s Partnering for Racial Justice in Business—a global coalition that brings together 48 multinational companies across 13 industries. Its mission is to eliminate racism in the workplace and set new global standards for racial equity. Also, take a look at the inspiring blog from my peer Shari Slate, chief inclusion and collaboration officer at Cisco, entitled: “Social Justice and the Hills We Climb.” In addition, I’m delighted to be cosponsoring with the Connected Asian Affinity Network, TeamChild, a non-profit organization that provides legal aid to economically challenged and marginalized youth.
There’s a tremendous amount left to do to achieve social justice in the world. It starts with every one of us looking at ourselves in the mirror and checking our internal narratives. Who do we think is less deserving, consciously or unconsciously, and why do we think that? Will technology help or hurt us in this effort to achieve social justice? Artificial intelligence can reveal to us when we are acting with bias and is ironically also the product of our bias, as we program AI to mimic our judgement calls. How can we make sure that technology helps us to be more humane?
So, social justice requires us to act with deliberate curiosity, care, advocacy, and sponsorship. We’ve seen how much the world and humanity can advance when more groups are included at the proverbial table. I’m a firm believer that doing so grows the resource pie as opposed to splitting it more ways. If you look in the social justice mirror and feel compelled to participate, here are a couple of ways to get involved:
Cisco Inclusive Communities – Social Justice Fund (Bright Funds site)