I’ve often been asked: “What has diversity got to do with growing the business? Isn’t it just some grand form of social engineering?”

Thankfully, there are many leaders who have already been persuaded that the pursuit of an inclusive culture is actually commercially beneficial.

A data-driven movement

McKinsey’s 2018 ‘Delivering Through Diversity’ report was one of many reports to forcibly make the case for inclusivity backed up by hard data.

A more academic approach was taken by the Journal of Management in its 2016 study, ‘The Business Case for Women Leaders: Meta-Analysis, Research Critique and Path Forward.’ There are plenty of others.

The challenge for leaders is more about how to get started, particularly when every company culture is different.

Another challenge is, having started, how to sustain that progress when it can seem so slow to materialise.

Try before you buy

As a marketing professional, I know that people need to try something new before truly changing their minds. It is this principle that leads to brands launching trial-sized versions of their products in the hope of converting those freebies into purchases.

The truth is, changing the way we think and interact with each other at work is difficult. Societal attitudes and workplace cultures are deeply ingrained. It is easier to agree intellectually with the idea of equal opportunity than to live up to it day to day. In addition, resistance is strong, so we must work actively together to shift everyday habits.

Unconscious bias training has been less effective than companies would like, despite its ‘reason and persuasion’ approach. Understanding that we all have bias may help explain the problem, but it doesn’t help people get to a solution.

Top five

To get to the heart of the issue, I’ve distilled my advice on creating a more inclusive workplace into the following five tips:

  1. Explain the commercial relevance of the change you have proposed. Sell the idea by identifying a clear bottom line benefit to your company. Cultural change must be led and endorsed by the Board. This is not CSR or HR: it’s a business strategy.

  2. Establish properly-resourced and validated employee resource groups to enable employees to help educate colleagues and drive change from within. This is too important to leave to volunteers and goodwill.

  3. Set targets and track and publish your progress towards greater diversity and a more inclusive culture using quantitative and qualitative data. Transparency is crucial.

  4. Design inclusion into all policy initiatives, communication and HR processes, including training, relating to recruitment, progression and retention.

  5. Invest in visible symbols of change such as gender-neutral toilets and subtitles on internal videos for the hearing impaired. Review the imagery and language of recruitment ads for bias, introduce a multi-faith approach to the celebration of religious festivals, and create transparent processes for work allocation.

Focus on inclusion

By calling myself Inclusion Director rather than Diversity Director when I was at Aviva, the multinational insurance company, I was able to signal immediately that my role encompassed everything, not just a gender equality agenda.

People have become fatigued by feminism because of the level of attention it gets in conversation at the apparent expense of other issues. And women resent being lumped together, either as a problem to be solved or as a monolithic group wanting the same things.

I felt strongly that a workplace culture change that would help everyone would, by definition, help women.

At Aviva, we called our employee resource groups ‘Communities’. This was meant to capture the idea that they were heterogeneous and that everyone was welcome to join the community they were passionate about, rather than the one they particularly identified with. Our Communities included Generations, Pride, Origins, Carers, Balance and Ability.

To reinforce our desire for diverse leadership, we stipulated that all our Communities must have gender-balanced co-chairs. All the co-chairs were allowed and encouraged to spend three working days a month leading their Communities and creating plans in relation to recruitment, promotion and retention.

Every market was encouraged to launch at least three Communities in the first year, and then add to them in accordance with their local agenda. 

Step by step

In November 2017, Aviva launched equal parental leave in Canada, Ireland, UK, France and Singapore. That means all employees, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or how they become a parent will be entitled to the same parental leave in each country. This creates a level playing field for parents and goes to the heart of changing minds by changing behaviour.

Every day, hundreds of decisions are made and actions are taken to reinforce or change the working culture. We need to make sure the balance of those decisions and actions move us towards a more inclusive workplace.

The more inclusivity is ingrained in working practices, the faster change will happen.

Jan Gooding is Chair of Stonewall, an organisation that campaigns for the equality of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people across Britain. She was formerly Global Inclusion Director at Aviva, the multinational insurance company.

This article is from the latest ‘Women, Diversity and the Path to Greater Inclusion’ edition of the Odgers Berndtson global magazine, OBSERVE.

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