How to Actually Impact Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Diversity programs have mixed results. To encourage real diversity, connect it to the bottom line, make meetings more inclusive, and be willing to meet one-on-one to help change mindsets.

Despite three-quarters of large US companies using some form of diversity training, only 1 in 5 C-suite executives is a woman, and just 1 in 25 is a woman of color. Unfortunately, the evidence that diversity programs work is mixed. Attitudes may change while behaviors don’t. Worse, the presence of diversity programs sometimes leads people to believe there is equity where there’s not.

So how can a conscientious company make real strides towards diversity and inclusion? At NOBL, we’ve worked with several clients to create measurable change—specifically, a more woman-friendly culture—and identified how to make diversity and equity programs in the workplace, work.

Level the Playing Field

  • Have a solid business case. Promoting diversity may be the right thing to do for humanity, but you’ll get more people to prioritize it when grounding it in business objectives. For instance, if your female customer base has doubled in the past year, point out that having more women in leadership will help the company understand and anticipate their needs better than the competition.
  • Promote a slate. Look for people in marginalized groups who are overdue for promotion, and promote a bunch at once. This cohort may or may not elect to work together for change, but this way no one is the token promotion, and people at lower levels can have an assortment of role models.
  • Specify what an emerging leader looks like. Hazy assessments tend to hold bias. Saying, “I like Janelle’s work, but I’m not sure about her leadership qualities” could indicate the real problem is that Janelle doesn’t look like a young white guy—someone who is more likely to be hired for his potential than for his proven track record. Extend that more generous mindset to everyone, and seek out people who demonstrate commitment, social skills, and willingness to learn.

Make Meetings More Inclusive

  • Learn the credit echo. Every woman has had the experience of raising an idea to hear nothing but crickets, only to have a male colleague raise it seconds later to general acclaim. Any person in a meeting can make sure credit goes where it’s due by noting its originator: “As Mary said…”
  • Get more women’s voices in the room. If there’s a weekly meeting where the senior leaders are all men, get everyone used to women’s voices by having each leader rotate in someone else from their team who can deliver reports on certain topics.
  • Check the VIP list. If you don’t have many senior women within the team, are there contractors you can invite in? This approach is especially helpful in industries using the Hollywood model—that is, where teams are put together on a project-by-project basis and freelancers or consultants are common.

Meet Individuals Where They Are

  • Coach the leaders. Create a safe place –preferably one-on-one – for senior leaders to reckon with needed changes in their own behavior. Adopting new behaviors, like hearing out complaints instead of shutting them down, may mean they have to work through the loss of their mental model of what a “good worker” looks like. For example, they may have to part with the illusion that their company is already a pure meritocracy. Or they may have to re-evaluate the “military model,” in which the ideal worker role must always come first, and personal identity, family, or culture must shift to accommodate it.
Published January 28, 2020

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