Elevating Diversity and Inclusion: 4 Ways Leaders Can Take the Challenge

With International Women’s Day just around the corner, it serves as a reminder that there is still a global diversity problem staring us in the face. Women make up only 17 percent of the UK IT workforce, for example; in the United States, there are more CEOs named John or David than there are female CEOs. Meanwhile, only 2.6 percent of people on UK tech boards are ethnic minorities and 70 percent of FTSE 250 companies lack any ethnic minority representation at the board level. 

We also know that highly diverse companies consistently outperform more homogeneous companies. Countless reports show that having a diverse workforce and generating creative abrasion (where diverse ideas are discussed and debated) results in lucrative benefits for companies. In other words, it’s not just the right thing to do; having a more diverse and inclusive workforce has significant positive business impact. 

Most businesses are striving for a more inclusive workforce, where representation matters and every individual feels valued. In fact, 77 percent of businesses said that D&I was a top focus in 2020. Although the intentions are good, there is still a lot of work to be done. The reality is that while most businesses claim D&I is a top priority, the majority lack a plan of action.

As part of this year’s ‘Choose to Challenge’ theme to celebrate International Womens’ Day, I discuss the practical steps courageous leaders can take to tackle workplace inequality.  Courageous leaders, by my definition, are leaders who are willing to take risks and boldly challenge the corporate status quo – even if those risks bring challenges to their leadership. 

Choosing to Challenge Assumptions and Individual Biases

Business leaders must address individual biases at play within an organisation. Studies show our brain makes use of stereotypes by putting people into groups typified by specific traits to avoid information overload. We know it exists, but the process of unravelling implicit biases can be daunting and complex; it involves not just addressing biased behavior, but ascertaining how you show empathy towards those you don’t agree with. This type of evaluation requires training—we may think we know our own biases, but often what you learn will surprise you. 

Biases at a structural level must also be addressed. These are biases that are built into the organizational framework, impacting things like how you recruit, how feedback is given, how promotions are awarded, and how behavior is handled. In my career, I’ve seen behavioral misconduct played down because it concerned a high-performing ‘rock star’ considered indispensable to the company. It might seem like a no-brainer, but it takes a courageous leader to prioritise behaviour and moral obligation over performance in some instances.

It’s equally up to business leaders to cultivate a safe working environment in which people feel comfortable to speak up. The fear of reporting discrimination or misconduct can be deeply ingrained among many, particularly minority groups. Though things are improving as more awareness is brought to such matters, recent research shows there has been a 15 percent uptick in reporting of gender discrimination in the UK workplace over the past five years.   

To guard against oversights or assumptions among the leadership team, it can also be helpful to share regular surveys amongst associates to gain a holistic insight into different D&I areas outside of the management bubble. While pressing decisions regarding D&I are made by leaders, they should be informed and shaped by the rest of the workforce. 

Choosing to Challenge Company Processes

Company processes and policies should regularly be reviewed with D&I in mind and challenged where necessary. This might include commissioning a pay equity audit once a year to guard against pay disparities, ensuring flexible office hours work for working parents, or introducing a parental leave policy that makes it easier for women to re-enter the workforce.

Recruitment needs to be a key focus, too. There are plenty of ways to guard against biases in the recruitment process, from introducing anonymous applications where the applicant’s name and gender don’t feature, to ensuring diverse representation on each interview panel, to reviewing job descriptions to make sure they appeal to an inclusive pool of applicants. For example, job specs that include a lengthy list of qualifications can deter women from applying if they feel they don’t fit every requirement. Similarly, interview processes should be standardized so that applicants for each role are tested for the same skills on an equal playing field. 

Choosing to Challenge How You Set Intentions and Company Goals

Most organizations are scared to apply metrics to D&I goals because they’re afraid they won’t achieve them or because numbers feel artificial. This mindset needs to be challenged across the board, as evidence tells us if you don’t set measures of success, things never change. At the very least, you need to set intentions. Targets or metrics are not the same as quotas. In fact, you could start by increasing the number of candidates from underrepresented populations, or ensure that every hiring process includes a diverse pool of people in the interview loop. 

Part of the problem is that D&I gets simplified and defined in a myopic way that doesn’t take into account cultural differences across countries or sectors. At Red Hat, we are working to tailor D&I goals to different teams or regions. One function or country may want to focus on improving their gender equality, while another may want to focus on increasing their underrepresented populations. Take time to understand what diversity, or representation, means in different cultures and places.  

Global companies ideally will have overarching, global company goals, and within it, individual D&I goals that are relevant and localised to each geography, depending on how the diversity landscape looks. For example, research shows that in South Asian countries like India, improving religious diversity is the biggest challenge, while somewhere like the U.S., racial diversity is the bigger focus area.

It’s also essential to focus and not try to boil the ocean – leaders can put off doing the work because they’re intimidated by the task or don’t know where to start. They ask: “Should I focus on women? Or women of color? Or people of color?” There’s no easy answer, and the answer isn’t going to be the same for every organization, but the important thing is to start somewhere. Once you achieve one goal, you can move onto something else. As uncomfortable as that may seem, it’s a conversation that needs to be had. 

Also, I recommend not leaving it just to the leaders. I guarantee you that your employees have brilliant ideas and strong opinions on how to work on this. As with any transformation, if D&I is only a top-down mandate, it won’t succeed. 

For example, you might choose to start with the behavior of existing employees, and set a target of putting 100 percent of managers through inclusivity training. Or you might set a target of working with X and Y universities and networks to increase the diversity of applicants. The key takeaway is you have to start somewhere. 

A structured review process and detailed reporting is an important part of setting goals. By recording goals reached, goals missed and areas for improvement, it allows for the strategy to be adjusted and expanded accordingly. Be honest if you don’t reach your goal, but keep looking forward. D&I is not something that can be solved overnight. It’s not about perfection, it’s about progress on the journey.

Choosing to Challenge Where the D&I Function Sits Within the Business

For too long, D&I has been viewed purely as a people or HR function. This needs to change.  Difficult decisions have to be agreed at the top and considered from a business perspective, especially in more hierarchical organizations. To make any real change, D&I needs to be seen as a strategic corporate initiative akin to a sales or product strategy, with D&I leads sitting at the table. Recently, we moved D&I to the office of the CEO, a move becoming common in many companies. Once elevated to the highest level of strategy, D&I becomes a part of everyone’s work.

For most, the understanding is there. But companies are still finding it difficult to move the needle on D&I. Certainly, if it continues to be viewed only as an HR initiative rather than a business imperative, change will be slow. 

To any business leader reading this, my key takeaway for you is to choose to be courageous. Choose to challenge the way D&I is perceived and integrated within your company. Choose to be intentional and focused with your goals. Choose to recognise and champion the opportunity that diverse and inclusive teams lead to increased productivity, innovation, and profitability. What better time than now to put a stake in the ground and begin this critical journey?

In addition to courage, transforming this area of your company takes humility and self-awareness of your own biases and stereotypes. Having just taken on a new diversity and inclusion leadership role, I will admit the first place I am starting is listening. Your people want to be “heard.”

Margaret Dawson is VP Diversity & Inclusion and Chief of Staff, Office of the CEO, Red Hat. She is a frequent author and speaker on digital disruption, emerging technologies, open source, and women leadership. A proven entrepreneur and intrapreneur, Margaret has led successful initiatives and teams at several start-ups and Fortune 500 companies, including Amazon, Microsoft and HP.