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EVOLVE21 - diversity isn’t about the systems we need to fix, it’s about people

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett October 12, 2021
Experts on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging share advice on creating an inclusive culture that works at a personal level.

Woman leads business discussion with diverse participants © fizkes - shutterstock

Most conversations around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging focus on the systems that need fixing to create a truly equal environment — everything from how to ensure pay equity to banishing bias from the recruitment process.

However, two diversity experts speaking at the EVOLVE21 virtual conference last week put forward the case that we spend too much time discussing the strategy and not enough time focusing on the people involved. Rocki Howard, who has just joined The Mom Project as its Chief People And Equity Officer, explained:

We always tend to think about diversity and equity and inclusion and belonging in these big actions. We think there's going to be some big sweeping action that is going to take place.

But actually the focus should be on humanizing diversity, with a goal of making the most diverse person in your organization feel welcome and comfortable. Speaking on the same panel, Sharra Owens-Schwartz, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Senior Director at Evolve21's host vendor, Rocket Software, said:

It's really shifting the way, not only how we think about it, but how we talk about diversity. We get really caught up in just adopting language, calling individuals diverse, because it's easy or it's the way that we've always been doing it.

I want us to start thinking about how we use language and humanize diversity by looking at individuals and not labeling individuals as diverse.

Who isn't diverse?

As Owens-Schwartz noted, if we think about diversity in the US there is just one individual who doesn't fit under the label of diverse — and that's a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian man.

All of that diversity is centered around that one person. Everybody else who is not that, is diverse. When we think about it like that, we can start to shift that paradigm around who is centered in the language that we use.

Yes, we want to have diverse pools of candidates. But by labeling people as diverse, we erase all of the contributions — their individual talents, what they bring to the organization — because we put them in this bucket. People oftentimes will say, yes, that person is a diverse candidate, but there's always a caveat. There's the question of, are they also qualified.

When diversity is discussed as an initiative rather than about the individuals, it also makes it easy to distance responsibility for it — the challenge is to find more ways to humanize it. Howard noted how diversity is the only business imperative where people are asked to examine their personal value system. She explained:

We challenge biases that they don't even know how they got, and we're asking them to change and challenge behaviors.

Make it personal

Making it personal is critical for change to happen, as people need to recognize that their actions impact another human being. One of the ways that Howard tackled this at her previous employer, SmartRecruiters, was via an origin story exercise with the leadership team. 

This origin exercise said, let's talk about who you are as a person. Let's talk about a time in your life that you felt bullied or not accepted at the table. Let's talk about something that people may not know about you.

You could literally see the barriers coming down. You could see people who currently went, ‘I don't know how to talk to that person' — now because they have their origin story, I can be vulnerable and if I share my story with this person, maybe they realize that they have the power to share theirs and they feel more comfortable.

While diversity should cover every possible aspect — disability, gender, race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+, religion and all their various intersections — Owens-Schwartz said it's useful to distill this down to just one person. She explained: 

I think about a woman, who's an immigrant — I just pick any country that's predominantly black or brown — and she's a lesbian, she is from a disadvantaged, socioeconomic background, she's a single parent. Think about all those layers of an other that make up who she is, and how do we make her feel like she belongs at Rocket?

If we can create an environment where she can thrive, that means that we've created an environment where everyone can thrive. It's really about that one person, open it up and make space for everyone to be included.

The panelists shared their advice on how to create psychological safety in the workplace. This entails fostering an environment where people can take good faith risks within the business and are allowed to fail — where it's ok to say ‘I don't know' or ‘I need help' or ‘I don't agree with that' or express a wild idea without feeling they're going to be shamed or punished or dismissed.

Setting ground rules

To create this kind of workspace, it's about being open to feedback and setting clear ground rules for how staff interact with each other. Owens-Schwartz added:

As leaders, as individual contributors, we really need to be aware, be reflective, actively engaged in learning about how to support other folks, and model that for your team.

At SmartRecruiters, Howard asked all leaders to end every meeting in a specific way — by asking every member of their team, what can I do to help and support you. She said: 

It's a very simple question that will actually help you be a better leader, assuming you will actually take action on what's told to you, or have an honest conversation when you can't. It sets the stage for different people of various dimensions of diversity to be able to tell you what's going on.

Howard also shared some frank advice for those wanting to be an ally:

If you're an ally, don't call yourself an ally, you need to show it. Don't put that stamp on yourself. When I see people self-identify as ally, it's almost like it's about them. It's not about you. It's about the person on the other side of the table.

One of the biggest things that you can do is to do the work — read, listen, understand what's going on with that community, understand the things that are impacting that person so you can show that you really care.

You may not have all the answers, don't worry about having the right words to say, don't be so terrified about if I say this word instead of that word, everything is going to go.

I screw it up every single solitary day and someone will check me, and I'll learn from it. It's about being willing to do the work and being humble enough to do the mistake and show up again.

My take

Howard shared some stats outlining how businesses that have taken steps to become more inclusive are outperforming their competitors:

  • Companies with racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to perform at a higher level and have increased ROI.
  • Diverse teams are shown to be 87% better decision-makers.
  • Companies employing an equal number of men and women produce up to 41% higher revenue.

Some useful evidence as to exactly why it's worth firms paying attention to the advice above — diversity directly impacts the bottom line.

For more diginomica stories from EVOLVE21 visit our EVOLVE21 event hub. The virtual event runs from October 5-6th and sessions remain available to view on-demand. Click here to register and view now.

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