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Building a Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Organization (Author Q+A)

Diversity, equity and inclusion have rapidly risen to the top of the business agenda. However, organizations continue to be criticized for only making surface-level changes.

We asked five of our expert authors to share their thoughts on how organizations can create true change to support their staff, whilst being part of a bigger societal movement to support underrepresented groups.

In your opinion, why do organizations struggle to combat a lack of representation and inequality?

Sheree Atcheson: Organizations struggle because they're not defining success across inclusion and diversity, but rather using the phrase as a buzzword. Metrics of success must be more than just representation, otherwise, we avoid the needed changes for equity across different groups - inclusion metrics are key.

Raafi-Karim Alidina: Part of the reason might be an intention-action gap among organizational leaders. It seems that most organizations really want to increase the diversity of their workforces and build more inclusive cultures, but the work it actually takes to get there is hard to reconcile sometimes.

Some interventions might require resources and time, but the biggest barrier is that it requires changing day-to-day behaviours. An organization’s culture is built by the behaviours exhibited by the people who work there. It’s about how you run meetings, how you have conversations with people, how you make decisions… and no matter how diversely you hire if you don’t have an inclusive culture you won’t be able to retain them. Behaviour change can be difficult, but if we de-bias our processes by using more inclusive meeting structures of decision-making procedures then we can make it easier for ourselves to change those behaviours.

Imogen Osborne: There is a combination of factors at play here. Some of these relate to historic working practice. Smart organizations are slowly picking their way through this intensively sensitive debate. Progress may be slow and with it the change that is required but it is essential they make sure that how they operate is both credible and authentic. Other reasons behind this struggle are societal and require significant progress to be made both within education and with the educators themselves.

Annabel Dunstan: Barriers! Resistance to change, fear, lack of training, poor communications and inertia. There is a need to create a safe space where people truly believe they belong. And that sometimes means completely restructuring the way in which people work. Without diversity from the top down, it often feels performative to those coming in. Transparency is critical if you are aiming to build a safe space.

What role does intersectionality place in the workplace and how can this impact underrepresented groups?

Simon Fanshawe: Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw from Columbia Law School coined the term 'intersectionality'. She described it as “a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other... What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts”. But she added to this explanation a serious warning, when asked in 2020 what intersectionality is: “ These days, I start with what it’s not, because there has been distortion. It’s not identity politics on steroids”.

Where her caution is so important is that it serves notice on the easy arithmetic which reduces the complexity of her idea to a Venn diagram of rigid categories. Those intersecting circles supposedly show how lives are affected by the overlapping designations of sex, race, sexual orientation, disability and so on. But that maths fails to take into account not only her reminder that ‘the experience is not just the sum of its parts’, but also that the experience of life inside each of those categories is not singular. We are more than a single word or deed, name or label.

So any use of ‘intersectionality’ at work has to be very careful. Group identity does not necessarily explain an individual's ambition, story or goals in life. Intersectionality only means something when it really reflects the human experience. It is not maths.

Sheree Atcheson: Intersectionality plays a pivotal role because it is about truly understanding how people exist in society and in your workplace, and how they're treated. When we avoid this nuance, we take a privileged approach, such as viewing all women as a monolith, when clearly women of colour, disabled women, poor women and so on are treated very differently than their majority-group counterparts. And that creates exclusionary inclusion, where we include more women, for example, but actually, it's more women of one group i.e. white, heterosexual, non-disabled, financially stable women, meaning we're not doing the much-needed work to reach people of all backgrounds.

Raafi-Karim Alidina: This is absolutely critical because, if you think about it, we are all an amalgamation of identities. None of us is just our race or just our gender or just one thing – we’re a combination of all those things. So considering how those intersect allows us to better understand everyone’s individual experiences.

Intersectionality is one of the most common terms in this field that I feel is often misunderstood. People often think it’s about how if you’re a Black woman then you experience both racism and sexism. But it’s also about how you experience unique modes of discrimination as a Black woman that other Black people and other women don’t experience:

A good example of this is the discrimination Black women often experience related to wearing their hair naturally – we know that Black women who wear their hair in braids or in an afro tend to be viewed as less professional, get paid less, or are less likely to be successful in job interviews when compared to black women with straight hair. This is something Black men and non-Black women don’t have to contend with. Understanding the unique modes of discrimination that intersectional groups experience will allow us to better understand each other and so better support one another.

Annabel Dunstan: Most companies' Diversity & Inclusion strategies didn't and don’t focus on intersectionality, which means many people feel overlooked and unheard. It’s crucial to look at the different ways people are affected by multiple forms of oppression or discrimination when you are considering how to develop policies for everyone. The feminism movement is a good example of this – its ‘all-female panels’ or boards often equated to just white women leaving the other intersections in the dark. This means that the efforts to address inequality toward women end up perpetuating the very systems we need to avoid.

Why should organizations be focusing on equity rather than equality?

Raafi-Karim Alidina: Equality is about giving everyone the same resources. Equity is about giving everyone the resources they need so that everyone has the same opportunities. Equity recognizes that different people have had different kinds of obstacles that have nothing to do with anything they’ve done – obstacles that, for example, introverts face that extroverts don’t, or people from low socio-economic backgrounds face that those from high socio-economic backgrounds don’t. This means that they need different kinds of support. Equity simply says that people are different, so they need different things to get the same chance.

Theodora Lau: Equality isn't enough; we need equity. Focusing on equity is about recognizing that there are runners on the outside track, who have a longer distance to cover and may need an extra boost — a helping hand. It is about recognizing our own privilege — those on the inside track, who have a shorter distance to travel and can get to the finish line faster.

What is the best way for businesses to support LGBT+ employees and make them feel more included in the workplace?

Sheree Atcheson: Listen, learn, be proactive and be actionable. LGBT+ rights are more than changing a logo or attending Pride. It's about ensuring your employees are safe to work in the business, that there are psychologically safe processes in place for folks to share their thoughts, feelings and so on, and that managers are appropriately educated on supporting people of all different backgrounds. Policies must be clear for LGBT+ folks, such as ensuring there is a clear stance on parental leave benefits, transitioning and so on. Being vague and non-committal is simply just not good enough.

Annabel Dunstan: Listen, learn, adapt. Go beyond box-ticking and consider ways to truly let people from the LGBTQ+ community be heard... do your policies include people from this community e.g. paternity leave? Consider updating policies, training on language, hiring an independent specialist, being aware of do’s and don’ts, but above all moving beyond FEAR.

Simon Fanshawe: Firstly stop lumping us all together in an alphabet soup as if we are all the same and share all the same experiences. I’ve been an out, campaigning gay man for almost 45 years, and I have learned that what we share, if not in the specific at least in the general, is an experience of prejudice. It may no longer be an all-day event but it’s still often an everyday event. But the thing about the success of our campaigns over the last decades is that we’ve made some progress. And with that success comes diversity in views, lifestyles, politics, attitudes to gender, about the significance of being gay to our lives.

The experience of lesbian, gay and bisexual people and that of trans people is very different and what they need from employers differs enormously too. The best way to make those of us in that group feel included is to remember that we disagree politically and socially. We have different lifestyles and ambitions. So don't let a single view on sexual orientation or gender identity gatekeep the only way to be gay or trans in your organization; ensure we aren't discriminated against for being gay or trans (make policy equal with those who are heterosexual) and then throughout your organization create spaces that are safe FOR disagreement and not FROM disagreement.

What advice do you have for brands and organizations who are reluctant to speak out against discrimination because of possible repercussions?

Simon Fanshawe: It will damage your brand not to do so.

Theodora Lau: Inequality is a human-made problem that can be solved. As leaders, we have the collective responsibility to go Beyond Good, and charter a new path: one of purpose and focused on being connected to our community and the common good. Together, we thrive.

Imogen Osborne: You are not just speaking up for yourselves - you are speaking up for all the other brands and organizations who are afraid to do so. The energy behind standing up for what you believe in is instinctively pure and unfettered. That in itself is incredibly powerful and persuasive. And while some, if not the majority of the subject matter may be hard to hear or resolve, it will be given a voice which means it will earn the attention that is so desperately needed.

Annabel Dunstan: The purpose behind ‘speaking out’ needs to be one of genuine concern and understanding. If you are speaking out to cover your back, don’t. Go back, understand the challenge and work on the solution. Then ‘speak out’ about your journey as an organization or brand that you have taken and what more you’ll be doing.

Ask better questions, educate yourself and your team, lean into the uncomfortable and just START! Yes, it can be uncomfortable but we all need to move along the continuum if we want a more diverse, inclusive and fairer workplace where all can thrive.

About the authors

Sheree Atcheson is a leading voice in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and works across regions and industries providing leadership training to business executives to develop fully formed focused diversity and inclusion strategies. She is the author of Demanding More.

Theodora Lau is the Founder of Unconventional Ventures and co-author of Beyond Good.

Raafi-Karim Alidina, co-author of Building an Inclusive Organization, is a consultant at Included, where he designs and implements behavioural insights interventions to improve equality and diversity and create inclusive cultures in organizations.

Annabel Dunstan and Imogen Osborne co-founded the engagement consultancy Question & Retain whose clients include Suzuki, PizzaExpress and Ferrero. They are co-authors of The People Business.

Simon Fanshawe is the co-founder of Diversity by Design, where he works with public, private and third-sector companies to bring about meaningful change in the diversity of their talent and the true inclusiveness of their culture. He is the author of  The Power of Difference.

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