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How businesses can take action to improve diversity and inclusion

8th Mar 18 3:36 pm

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There’s an ancient Japanese proverb that goes, ‘Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.’ The last year has changed how we see the treatment of women, both at work and outside work, and how we talk about it. In sharing their experiences through campaigns like #MeToo, millions of women have created a powerful movement for gender balance and equality. Yet, particularly in some sectors, progress around these issues remains slow.

Twenty-one years ago, I began supporting business performance through creating inclusion and building diversity. Having worked in many geographies and sectors, I know that to #PressforProgress and convert our new momentum into sustained change, we have to pay attention to the following factors:


We have set the bar too low in the past. Increasingly, leaders have to take an active role and model inclusive behaviours.

Too many organisations leave the action-planning around inclusion and diversity in the hands of employees at the grassroots level. The intention in creating diversity and inclusion is to create lasting change with a return on investment, yet executives often delegate this work rather than taking ownership of it. This is risky; managers deeper in the organisation are driven by the actions they see from above, and if executive role-models always delegate this work, it will never be seen as important. Grassroot groups are not in the position to make critical changes across the organisation.


In a world full of competing priorities, good intentions only go so far. For intention to inspire sustained action, it needs a business rationale and a return on investment. Without that inclusion becomes an optional extra — and this is why so many organisations make good progress before sliding back to ‘square one’ months or years down the line.

It’s crucial to work with senior business leaders to help them identify the most important links between inclusion and diversity, and the best business outcomes for themselves. Before a leader can communicate their ‘Why’ to others, they have to be able to articulate it to themselves. The main (or most relevant) driver may be around staff engagement, operational effectiveness, or knowledge retention. A guided conversation, in which each executive team chooses for themselves, forms the basis of sustained investment and personal commitment.


We need to balance our focus on Diversity with equally strong attention to Inclusion. Everybody feels that greater inclusion should have benefits for them but talking exclusively about diversity can make people in majority groups feel that the is-sues don’t apply to them; at worst, they may feel under threat.


The current pressure around diversity can make it tempting to take action for its own sake — to be seen to be doing something. But inclusion and diversity are no different to any other area of business, and we don’t normally invest in major change without a good root-cause analysis. We need to generate and analyse enough data to allow us to question what we think we know and create practices that make a difference. Otherwise, we risk strategising around dud preconceptions. For example, it’s not uncommon for leaders to understand a lack of diversity solely in the context of hiring practices — in fact, it often reflects other problems, such as resignations or a lack of promotions.


Choose the few actions which will have the most impact. We should always include a focus on leadership practices and behaviour among those few things we choose to do.


We want to reach a place where we can stop talking about diversity and inclusion, but we have not made enough progress yet. Before then, the decisions and actions that allow us to foster both of them should become standard practice, ‘business as usual.’ Until then, we need to be rigorous in the way we inspect the common practices within our organisations and ensure that they are operating fairly and inclusively. For instance: Do we know that working parents will be fairly considered for promotions and stretch assignments, rather than being limited by unfounded assumptions made by a manager? Initial inspection and improvement takes time, but it’s an investment, and it will continue to deliver benefits over the long-term.


We need to be relentless on measurement and accountability in this area. Data is crucial to helping maintain focus, but we’re still not making the most of it. Even those organisations who are doing relatively well tend to use their data to look back in time, reviewing decisions long since taken.

If we collect and use data about key decisions (like hiring or promotions) in real time, it will allow us to identify patterns of potential bias, while there is still time to go back and challenge decision makers. This is key to ensuring that we are operating fairly and inclusively.

Now that we know so clearly what needs to change, the question becomes: How do we make sure that the pressure of the past year is converted into measurable outcomes? We need to take action before the echoes of #MeToo fade.

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