Embedding Diversity & Inclusion

The workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Awards ceremony yesterday included a wide-ranging panel discussion on embedding Diversity & Inclusion.

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Employers should analyse who the dominant voices and the dominant functions in their organisation are and ensure that everyone feels valued equally if they want to get the most out of their workforce, a Q & A panel on embedding diversity & inclusion at this year’s workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Awards heard yesterday.

Diana Parkes, founder of the Women’s Sat Nav to Success Ltd, said her research showed that diversity and inclusion was about people being heard and valued and that sometimes some functions in a business are valued more than others. She spoke of ‘hero’ departments, typically sales, or finance, who dominate planning and strategising while other functions are overlooked. “They are the in-group and they can prevent the best thinking because the right people for the right outcomes are not included,” she said. “Organisations need the best information to make the best decisions.” She added that she had also seen that if the hero group understood Diversity & Inclusion it could be ‘transformative’ for the business because the views of those in the group were valued more.

Her comments came during a panel discussion on Diversity & Inclusion chaired by Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership at Bright Horizons. They followed on from remarks by panellist Rob Hopkin, co-founder of Axis, about the need to ensure inclusion is part of everyday business practices such as meetings. Hopkin said that to embed diversity people needed to feel that their voices were heard when it came to the everyday running of an organisation and decision-making processes. That is the aim of Axis’ work. Hokin said meetings tend to be dominated by the same voices, with many workers feeling excluded, including remote workers. “So many meetings are not great. Using technology, we help to ensure everyone has their voices heard and has the opportunity to put forward their perspective on solving problems,” he said.

Covid impact

Consultant Dr Suzanne Doyle-Morris, founder and CEO of Inclusiq, said the pandemic had had positive and negative effects for women – on the positive side was the change in attitudes towards remote working with the proof that it works, but on the negative side the pandemic had significantly set back gender and race equality. Nevertheless, there was an appetite for change when it came to Diversity & Inclusion which must be taken forwards, she said. She had spoken to one leader of a BAME network who had stepped down due to the slow pace of change and was not sure the network would survive. That was the employer’s loss, said Dr Doyle-Morris. “He is a complete star and he will get where he is heard,” she stated, adding that employers needed to ensure they can keep up with the appetite for change.

Diana Parkes also addressed the issue of gender diversity. She called on employers, having fast adapted to short term challenges, to be bold and commit to slower burn, longer term strategies that enable women to progress, for example, encouraging greater sharing of domestic duties. This could be through creating safe spaces for parents to say what they want and to challenge gender stereotypes, and valuing part-time workers more by giving them access to sponsorship, training and quality projects. “We need to educate people to understand that when someone is a parent their brain is not parked,” she said, citing survey results showing a big gap between how much women contribute to an organisation and how much they feel valued, compared to their male counterparts.

Salma Shah, founder and creator of Mastering Your Power Coach Training, spoke about how unconscious bias training had been regarded as “a magic pill” in the early days. She said she was quite relieved that there are moves to look at other approaches to Diversity & Inclusion. She said unconscious bias training had become diluted over the years and that she felt uncomfortable about some of the conversations around it. She didn’t think it should be discarded entirely, but she said it was not, on its own, a magic solution. She wanted to see the momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement sustained and approaches to diversity becoming more systemic and embracing broader issues of belonging, psychological safety and inclusion.


Andrew Armes, UK Head of Talent Acquisition at Roche, spoke about how Roche is keen to raise awareness of the strengths of neurodiverse workers. He said this was important, but it also raised the issue of how we need to recognise that everyone is different, has overcome different challenges and brings diverse strengths to an organisation rather than create separation between workers. “We should focus less on needs and more on the strengths people bring and the wider inclusion that brings,” he said, asking “why am I excluding myself or others around me”.

Deborah Richards, Diversity & Inclusion Leader for the UK at IBM, which won the Top Employer Award for Diversity & Inclusion, spoke about how working with neurodiverse colleagues made her think about how people solve problems in different ways and how important that is for getting better results and building better products. She noted that colleagues on the autistic spectrum tended to adapt well to remote working and found it less stressful, but said she was working with suppliers on how to ensure workplace tools took neurodiversity into account and did not overwhelm people with too much information. Jennifer Liston-Smith also spoke of how processes such as recruitment assessments might need to be adapted to ensure everyone’s strengths could be properly gauged.

The Q & A followed the workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Awards ceremony which was introduced by Gillian Nissim and Mandy Garner from the newly launched WM People [which brings together workingmums.co.uk, workingdads.co.uk and workingwise.co.uk]. Nissim said it had been a very challenging year and that it was important to acknowledge all the many ways in which employers had adapted to those challenges – including WM People. She spoke of the way the company’s roundtables had gone online, how it had organised Facebook Live sessions for parents on their rights and on mental health, how it had run multiple surveys to keep up to date with what parents needed and how it had provided advice and information to hundreds of parents over the last months. Garner gave a digest of all the surveys, including the latest one on the current lockdown. Nissim said: “The next year will be challenging in different ways as we seek to rebuild and to ensure that no-one gets left behind. We will need to harness all the lessons learned from the last months and use them to embed Diversity & Inclusion and drive innovation.”

Judges’ thoughts

The awards ceremony was followed by a panel discussion among the Awards judges – Andy Lake, editor of Flexibility.co.uk; Jennifer Liston-Smith; Dave Dunbar, Head of Digital Workspace at the Department for Work and Pensions; and Clare Kelliher, Professor of Work and Organisation at Cranfield School of Management.

Asked what had stood out for her from this year’s entries, Jennifer Liston-Smith said the huge sustained effort by employers, champions, mental health first aiders and line managers to keep organisations going despite the pandemic. “The sheer effort and resilience was outstanding across the board,” she said. She praised in particular the creativity of some employers when it came to matching specific initiatives to their particular workforce, for instance, Sky Betting & Gaming’s weekly Wheel of Fortune game to connect remote workers, Atos’ virtual summer holiday club, SMS’s Sunrise competition to address mental health issues for field-based engineers and PwC’s virtual education initiatives.

For Dave Dunbar the amount of employee engagement stood out. Engagement scores had gone up in many cases which showed how much effort had been put in in difficult times. Senior leadership involvement was also key.

For Professor Kelliher, the amount of innovation she had seen in the entries was impressive and showed what organisations could do if they were forced to rethink things. Many had learned a lot in the process of adapting to fast-changing circumstances. What was also impressive was how they had kept focused on longer term Diversity & Inclusion work.

Andy Lake also praised organisations’ adaptability, the acceleration of smart working and the way technology had been harnessed for team working. The entries were “a showcase for business resilience under difficult circumstances,” he said.

The judges were also asked about some of the main challenges thrown up by Covid-19. For Dave Dunbar, this included how employers deal with the tension between employee demand for more flexible working and the difficulties of pandemic working, for instance, the equation of homeworking with flexible working and negative perceptions of homeworking isolation during the pandemic which may provoke a rush back to “the straightjacket” of the office among concerns about city centres and unemployment. Another huge issue was mental health. Employers needed to cater to all their employees, adopt a tailored approach and ensure remote workers felt included, said Dunbar.

For Andy Lake, employers needed to ensure that smart working worked well. He didn’t like the term hybrid working as he felt it lacked a transformative element and suggested employers just shift some of their meetings online rather than modernising their working practices and designing in smart working, ensuring everyone had what they needed to work effectively wherever they were working.

Professor Kelliher said the pandemic had raised huge questions about gender at work and how remote working and furlough have affected or will affect men and women’s career progression and pay. She said employers needed to think about the unintended consequences of who they furlough and about how they treat employees fairly based on their overall track record not just this year’s events as we emerge from the pandemic.

Jennifer Liston-Smith added that it was important to acknowledge how challenging and painful the pandemic had been for employers despite the positives, which included greater dialogue and openness about addressing race equality and diversity and inclusion generally. She said the pandemic had also shown that many dads wanted to be more hands on at home. Bright Horizons’ Modern Families Index showed 80% wanted to continue to be more involved in their children’s lives after Covid. Covid had made people more upfront about their caring responsibilities, she said, although she added that it was wrong to equate crisis working during Covid with remote working. “Remote working does not mean the chaos we have seen,” she said.

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