It has been over a month since we saw the most recent iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement reignite. We have not seen such a huge drive as we are now focusing on Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). Whilst the tragic and unacceptable deaths of people like Breonna Taylor, Cornelius Fredericks or Sandra Bland in the US, Simeon Francis in the UK, Adama Traoré in France have all happened in police custody over the past few years, the recent death of George Floyd has created a movement with such momentum on a global scale like no other we have seen recently.
The huge difference from my perspective on this this time round is who is participating in the debate. This has seen a gigantic rise in allyship, one that we have historically never seen the strength of, which is what is propelling this to be at the top of society’s discourse, organisations’ public statements, governments’ agendas for reform. But then why? Why are we still so deeply entrenched in such comfortably racist societies that are unable to change the systemic structures that our histories have planted on us? Why are we seeing companies in the US alone spent over $8bn on D&I initiatives but the numbers we are seeing sliding backwards on topics such as representation at a leadership level?
There are plenty more reasons than these below but my key thoughts on this are:
1. Our Audience: There are so many events that I have been to, spoken at, been a panellist for, all centred around D&I. And most of the time? I’m talking to people like me. I’m being spoken to by people like me. People from different protected characteristics (somebody’s demographics that they would complete on a job application form) who all share one thing in common: an experience of inequity. Don't get me wrong. We need to be able to lean on each other, learn from each other as professionals. But people from these demographics aren’t the problem here. It’s the organisational cultures we are operating in that systemically prevent people like me from being able to thrive. To flourish. To succeed. We continue to have the right discussion but with the wrong people. Let’s find new ways to speak to those who don’t already know these experiences, tools, strategies, mindsets to create inclusive workplaces.
2. Our Disengagement: A big reason D&I can initiatives fail is the fact that despite striving for inclusion, we manage to exclude huge proportions of our workforce. I'm not saying this is the case for all of those who aren’t the intended beneficiaries of the diversity programmes, but if we aren’t creating the right organisational cultures first, those people who aren’t reaping the benefits of, for example, a female or a BAME leadership programme may well think a) well why should I even bother as the leadership are only going to promote a female or a BAME colleague right now, and b) when they do promote those people, they obviously weren’t the best person and were only filling a quota. This means that those demographics have to work twice as hard to get the acceptance and recognition they deserve. Obviously, these aren’t things that we hear, but I’ve seen this subconscious mentality. We don’t want to add women or other under-represented demographics into leadership roles because there aren’t enough of them there presently. We want to do it because that cognitive diversity from different people makes us richer in our decision making processes, produces better results, spots previously unidentified risks. We need to consciously craft the environment to make sure we are bringing the whole workforce along with us on this transformational journey and do so in a way that isn’t divisive.
3. Our Accountability: The people who on the whole are currently responsible for this cannot be the only functions who are organisationally responsible for this. Whilst D&I obviously has a huge people and culture element to it, leaving it as the responsibility of HR is fundamentally flawed. If a culture isn’t inclusive and doesn’t enable the workforce to feel like they belong, that’s not just down to policies from the HR team. That impossible barrier preventing employees’ feel a sense of belonging will be a tone set by the entire leadership team. Which is why Diversity & Inclusion must be a part of the CEO’s business strategy, and not just a subset of the HR objectives. Without their buy-in and active championing of this, no matter what happens is only going to make tiny incremental steps. And right now, we really need to be making much bigger strides.
4. Our Deference: Ordinarily, we all look to our leaders for the answers. That’s why they are at the top and others are not so, right? But sometimes, with that lack of diversity in our leadership, the execs by definition can’t have all the knowledge, all the skills, all the experience of how to make this better. Because it has rarely impacted them. It takes a certain type of leader who can admit to their knowledge gaps and then reach out to other people who can help fill them. That vulnerability and authenticity is what makes exceptional leaders. We need to change who we expect to have the answers for these difficult to broach conversations, but then ensure that our leaders are pushing this at the top of their agendas.
5. Our Fears: Of late, the key thing I have seen hold so many people back despite wanting to make a difference is fear. Our current position preventing us moving forward is in part down to the fear that we might say something wrong. That we might offend. Or worse, that we say something so wrong that it comes back and bites us in the form of a lawsuit. And so, we do nothing. We are complicit in enabling this to continually perpetuate and let it drift without direction. Let’s couple this with the intrinsic guilt that our histories place on people who are white (or straight, or male, or middle/upper class) have with regards to these topics. They can be really difficult conversations to have because we don’t feel like we are on an even starting line when we begin this discourse. But we must get over that fear. We have to allow those who don’t come from these backgrounds to learn and potentially make mistakes along the way, as long as it’s coming from a place of good intent. We can find ways to humbly address how to constructively correct people when they stumble on their journey of learning. We’ve got to have each other’s backs here.
So. How can we improve this? There are a number of different things we can do, and by no means is this exhaustive, but:
1. Lead more genuinely: A big part of this succeeding is how ethical and trustworthy leaders are. People need to know this is not a topic that is being offloaded from the core strategy. Personally, I think that if the topic of Diversity and Inclusion went through a corporate’s Project Management Office, there is a good chance that we would not see the continuation of certain elements or in some instances the projects would be discontinued. But we know that we can’t do this. It's way too political a conversation. We know what sort of a message this would send out if we were to be exposed for cancelling these initiatives. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be seeing results in these areas. Just because the results are difficult to achieve, and the topics of race, sexual orientation, disability etc. are sensitive to discuss, we shouldn’t be accepting mediocre results.
2. Use data better: Data is critical for getting people to understand how we can move forwards. But I don’t mean let’s only focus on the percentage of female leaders, leaders of colour, LGBT+ leaders etc. Those metrics and data sets are just a snapshot of a single moment in time. Let’s look at how we can really effect change. How long is it taking certain demographics over others to progress internally? What’s the sentiment or engagement level of our underrepresented communities in the workplace? A big part of the problem is how we assume things because of how we see them. Perhaps people from minority demographics aren’t underrepresented, but instead are underestimated.
3. Follow through: If, as a leader, you are discussing things with your staff like developmental opportunities (how many of your underrepresented/underestimated staff get onto leadership programmes for example), or equity in your SME, don’t ever let those conversations drop. It can be really hard for your people to bring these topics back up, and you forgetting about them being held not just breaks their psychological contract, but also shows that you don’t value them as much you claimed. Especially when people who are underrepresented have already had to work harder to gain that same professional visibility than their colleagues from homogenous demographics. Think about what messages and impact that sends out. You can always say that it's not feasible at this particular point but we can revisit it at a point when the business is more in a position to do so. But dropping the conversation is just careless.
4. Accept and fill those gaps: I always say that “we only know what we know”. We can’t be expected to know more than what our brains already have in them. But we can choose to seek out more information. To fill those gaps when they are presented. To ask people how we can improve. This knowledge gap isn’t a sign of weakness. But for many, refusing to further explore these things can be demonstrating poor leadership and bad corporate citizenship. Let’s be more curious. Let’s discover more.
We need to flip who we are having these conversations with. We need to shift who we are holding accountable for delivering on this. We need to no longer be complacent that these inequities are acceptable in our workplaces or our societies. We need to start role modelling what we want our cultures to be. We need to stop arguing whether we should be using the moral case for D&I, or the economic case for D&I. Let's use a holistic case for D&I and get even more people bought in on the project mandate. How we want them to enable everyone to thrive. To not exclude or disengage any particular subset of our workforce. Because without it, we can spend all the money we want on D&I, but it will never achieve that holy grail that we expect it to, or more crucially that we need it to.