Diversity is not just a tick-box exercise

Amid initiative fatigue, it is worth remembering that diversity is not just a tick box exercise.

Lots of people joining hands in a circle representing diversity


There seems to be a bit of gender fatigue going on in some organisations. According to a new book, Create a gender-balanced workplace, by Ann Francke, Chief Executive of the Chartered Management Institute, some senior managers think they’ve ‘done gender’, even though the improvement in numbers of senior female managers has been very slow.

She speaks of ‘gender fatigue’ and cites one FTSE 100 chairman telling her: “I’m sick of talking about the gender gap. We’ve done that.” She also cites Cherie Blair saying: “I think that sometimes people acknowledge the business case but, given the lack of progress, it seems as though they don’t actually internalise it and find it compelling enough to make the changes that are needed.”

Gender equality or any kind of equality cannot be reduced to a PR tick-box stunt. It requires full-on commitment for the long term and it needs to be fought on all fronts because bias is the default setting because it is ingrained in the system.

Francke quotes Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, who comments: “There is a fatigue creeping in and we need to change the narrative…I think they are the usual barriers…resistance because ‘she may take my job’ type thing, or lack of understanding, a lack of resources to attack it, or a belief that others do it, or a lack of data – all that stuff exists to some extent. So you have to work on multiple fronts.”

Diana Parkes, founder of the Women’s Sat Nav to Success has come at the issue of gender from a broader perspective to get around some of the backlash issues. She has been running a pilot programme,  Pause for Success, which builds on her research and addresses the underlying contribution-to-value gap that she has identified in a way that isn’t wholly focused on gender.

It starts from the basis of people preferences and the systematic errors managers often make in who they listen to, consult and involve and from the detrimental impact those unconsciously driven choices can make on meeting outcomes, project outcomes, business outcomes and the individual or individuals concerned.

That may include women, but it is not purely about women. It may involve bias related to everything from class and ethnic minority status to particular functions in a business.

Parkes says: “This route into the topic means that delegates are open, enquiring, intrigued and able to identify salient situational and on-going examples and then scope the impact of those sub-optimal choices.”

She says the reason for this more general approach is to counter the “sheep-dip approach to diversity ‘training’”. Parkes says: “The more programmes that are run, the less benefit they deliver, as people decide in advance to put up barriers to the messages and judgements that they feel are being imposed upon them. Many men, in particular, feel alienated and threatened. This is not a formula for change.”

The important point is that diversity is about enabling employees, all employees, to perform to the best of their abilities, rather than favouring one particular group. As the writer Chitra Ramaswamy argued in The Guardian recently when talking about those people who decry diversity in literature as being about virtue signalling and link it to a dilution of quality. This is precisely not what diversity is about. Such an approach, Ramaswamy argues, presupposes that those groups who have not been systemically favoured are not the victims of discrimination and bias, but are ‘not as good’.

She states: “The truth is that greatness, like mediocrity, can come from anywhere. Diversity is not the enemy of quality – it is the realisation of it. Right now, diversity is something that is said more than done; all talk and no action. It has become a fashionable word that triggers a kind of cynical switch-off in our minds, a slump in our bodies and a pile-on in our social media feeds. We appear to be more interested in debating what constitutes diversity than actually increasing it…”

Diversity is about nurturing everyone’s talent and potential. As such, it makes for better organisations, better decisions, better business and a better society.

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