Four courageous ways to drive diversity and inclusion in your organisation

Margaret Dawson, Vice President Diversity and Inclusion and Chief of Staff, Office of the CEO, Red Hat.

International Women’s Day serves as a reminder that there is still a global diversity problem staring us in the face. Women make up only 17% of the UK IT workforce and, in the US, there are more CEOs named John or David than there are female CEOs. Meanwhile, only 2.6% of people on UK tech boards are ethnic minorities and 70% 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 is 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 feel valued. In fact, 77% of businesses said that diversity and inclusion 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 diversity and inclusion is a top priority, the majority lack a plan of action.

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.

#1 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 behaviour, but ascertaining how you show empathy towards those you do not 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 organisational framework, impacting things like how you recruit, how feedback is given, how promotions are awarded, and how behaviour is handled.

It is 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, and recent research shows there has been a 15% uptick in reporting of gender discrimination in the UK workplace over the past five years.

#2 Company processes and policies should regularly be reviewed with diversity and inclusion 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 reenter 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 do not 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 do not fit every requirement. Similarly, interview processes should be standardised so that applicants for each role are tested for the same skills on an equal playing field.

Margaret Dawson, Vice President Diversity and Inclusion and Chief of Staff, Office of the CEO, Red Hat.
Margaret Dawson, Vice President Diversity and Inclusion and Chief of Staff, Office of the CEO, Red Hat.

#3 Most organisations are scared to apply metrics to diversity and inclusion goals because they are afraid, they will not 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 diversity and inclusion get simplified and defined in a myopic way that does not take into account cultural differences across countries or sectors.

Research shows that in South Asian countries like India, improving religious diversity is the biggest challenge, while somewhere like the US, racial diversity is the bigger focus area.

It is also essential to focus and not try to boil the ocean – leaders can put off doing the work because they are intimidated by the task or do not do not know where to start.

There is no easy answer, and the answer is not going to be the same for every organisation, 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.

As with any transformation, if diversity and inclusion is only a top-down mandate, it will not succeed.

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 do not reach your goal, but keep looking forward. Diversity and inclusion are not something that can be solved overnight. It is not about perfection; it is about progress on the journey.

#4 For too long diversity and inclusion 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 organisations. To make any real change, diversity and inclusion needs to be seen as a strategic corporate initiative akin to a sales or product strategy, with diversity and inclusion leads sitting at the table.

For most, the understanding is there. But companies are still finding it difficult to move the needle on diversity and inclusion. 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 diversity and inclusion 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.


Key takeaways

  • 77% of businesses said that diversity and inclusion was a top focus in 2020.
  • Although intentions are good, there is still a lot of work to be done.
  • Reality is while most businesses claim diversity and inclusion is a top priority, the majority lack plan of action.
  • Fear of reporting discrimination can be deeply ingrained among many, particularly minority groups.
  • Ensure that hiring process includes a diverse pool of people in the interview loop.
  • Organisations are scared to apply metrics to diversity and inclusion goals because numbers feel artificial.
  • For too long diversity and inclusion has been viewed purely as a people function.
  • Difficult decisions have to be agreed at the top and considered from a business perspective.
  • Diversity and inclusion need to be seen as a corporate initiative akin to a sales or product strategy.
  • In addition to courage, transforming this area takes humility and self-awareness of your own biases and stereotypes.

Margaret Dawson at Red Hat explains why driving diversity and inclusion requires courage to work against bias, and not expect it to be an HR function.