Why diversity still matters

By India Gary-Martin 

Whilst there have been a number of companies that have had some form of diversity initiative in place for decades, the formal organization of widespread programs that are described as what we now call Diversity and Inclusion, began to appear in force in the late 1990’s. In the US, the reasons for implementing these programs has morphed based upon the climate around discrimination and an inherent need to protect the bottom line. Diversity initiatives and programs have been most often underpinned by financial need – the avoidance of expensive lawsuits in the first instance and later the business case for diversity as it related to businesses performing better which leads to greater revenue.

The civil rights era in the US spawned much of the initial talk about diversity and was primarily related to race. In the late 90’s those conversations began to include other affinity groups who were also suffering workplace discrimination. With the introduction of those other groups into the frame – in a perceived ‘post racial’ America, race was pushed to the back of the queue and was nominally addressed at best. For the next 20 years, most of the formalised diversity and inclusion functions, have been primarily focused on the women’s agenda.

The UK faced a different issue. With disparate Asian and Afro-Caribbean/African communities that self-segregate by country and often language of origin, there was no collective ethnic minority voice driving the discussions around race in the corporate space in the early days. The history around why ethnic minority groups migrated to the UK is very different than the reasons that African-Americans landed in the US some 400 years ago. Severe and often brutal oppression, created a community in the US in modern times who were at the very least collectively focused on having access to opportunity and the burgeoning US economy. In the UK, with many ethnic minorities being 1st generation – the attitude was often assimilation as opposed to challenging power structures for representation and inclusion. In recent years, that has begun to change. In addition to having very few corporate role models, the propensity of immigrant parents to instil in their children the need to demonstrate what is more behaviourally akin to tenured jobs, means that more often than not, people who are 1st generation and from ethnic minority families not have had the bi-cultural corporate competency to know that the rules for succession in corporate environments are different.  Being on time, doing a good job and keeping your head down is not the golden path to promotion and leadership. It is critically important to understand those nuances when setting strategy for hiring and retention. It really is like being bilingual.

Though there were and are organizations in the UK that have focused on race in this space for decades, there has been little measurable change in the past 20 years as it relates to the recruitment and retention of ethnic minority talent in corporations themselves. For that reason, women’s diversity initiatives took centre stage in the UK and as such, women have been the primary beneficiaries of diversity initiatives though the LGBTQ community have also made good strides. That being said, women and all underrepresented groups are still underrepresented – and for all of the effort that has been made, much of what is different is attitude. The numbers have moved to some extent in each pillar but not materially enough – particularly in sectors that have always been primarily populated by males like science and technology.

The social climate in the US with its current political leanings and the nationalism associated with Brexit in the UK are bringing race to the fore once again. Progressive organizations are publicly doubling down with enlightened CEO’s making very public statements, setting up specific functions to hire ethnic minority talent and introducing functions that focus on minority outreach in a big and meaningful way. However, more companies have diversity fatigue and with regime change, diversity and inclusion functions that once had pride of place at the leadership tables of corporate CHRO’s are being layered down into HR organizations and are also being defunded. Some will argue that diversity as a mainline is no longer required because it is embedded into organizational operations and infrastructure. The reality is very different. There are few that can point to meaningful change in terms of numbers as it relates to women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ, disability or age. Awareness of these strands has certainly improved but it is far too soon to take the foot off the pedal and there are visible signs across corporate enterprise of back sliding. Awareness is only step one on the curve.

Moving the needle takes direct brave action against naysayers who believe that demanding a diverse slate of talent and making decisions to hire fully qualified talent who are underrepresented is being discriminatory to the majority. At the current rate of movement, there is no danger that women will become 50% of the leadership structure or that parity will come even close to being reality in corporate enterprise for another 60 years. If you review the rate of change for the other affinity groups, that number decreases even further.

In addition to diversity and inclusion, there are some evolved companies that have gone the extra step to add equity into the mix – that is taking visible steps to level the playing field for underrepresented groups. Without equity – you can’t have equality. Isn’t that what diversity and inclusion is meant to achieve?

Diversity and inclusion are still important and should be central to the operating model of any enterprise that wants to remain current in an ever-evolving global economy. Post the US political conundrum and a fractured UK resettling in a post Brexit world, only the strong will survive. Regaining focus when the dust settles will be too late. Smart organizations who have pushed through will make it difficult to compete and will attract and retain the best talent. Diversity and inclusion will continue to be drivers for healthy thoughtful businesses but only for those who invest. They will become the business cases for being on the right side of history.

Are you investing in Diversity and Inclusion to make sure your workforce drops the biases and raise the standards of a corporate culture driven by talent and inclusivity? Check out our eLearning course in Culture, Diversity & Ethics or contact our Learning Specialist for a FREE DEMO.

About the author:

India Martin is a 25-year veteran of financial services and a member of the Forbes Coaches Council. She has held a number of global C-Suite roles including expatriate assignments in London, Frankfurt, Tokyo and Hong Kong. In her final role at JPMorgan, India was Managing Director & Global Chief Operating Officer for Investment Banking Technology and Operations where she had multi-billion dollar budgetary management responsibility for 15,000 staff in more than 40 global locations. India is a globally recognized leadership expert and coach and is the driving force behind www.leadershipforexecs.com, a leadership and business advisory consultancy with a clientele of Fortune 500 and C-Suite executives from around the world. She is a well-known keynote and panel speaker. India is on the coaching faculty at Georgetown University for the Exec Master’s in Leadership and is also on the coaching faculty of the New York City Bar Association’s Associate Leadership Institute.