According to a recent McKinsey and Company report on Why Diversity Matters, companies that achieve gender diversity on their executive teams are 21% more profitable than those that don’t. Meanwhile, the same report found that companies who are ethnically and culturally diverse outperform their counterparts by 35%.
The evidence is clear that diverse teams produce better results. So let’s change the conversation about diversity in our organisations so it’s not seen as a gap to close but as a key condition of business success.
But for most organisations, including ours, creating a truly diverse and inclusive culture is hard. And however well-intentioned, the diversity programmes that we’re running today aren’t working.
Unconscious bias training is often looked upon as one of the ‘go-to’ methods for creating a more inclusive culture; its goal is to teach us how to acknowledge, unseat and address the biases we naturally develop. It aims to uproot our tendencies to hire or form closer relationships with people like us so that, for example, we don’t end up with fewer women on FTSE100 boards than men called John.
Unfortunately, unconscious bias training is proven to be one of the least effective ways to create a more diverse workforce according to research from Harvard, Berkeley and the University of Minnesota.
So why is well-intentioned diversity training failing? Well, our deep-seated biases are really hard to change. A training course is destined to fail for the same reason that all single-use training courses fail; we forget 60% of what we’ve learned in 24 hours if it isn’t reinforced.
Renowned Harvard academic Iris Bohnet has a solution:
“The root causes of bias include one difficult truth: no one is immune from them… Concerted, consistent and continuous action is required.”
If we truly want to tackle our bias head on – which we need to do if we want our businesses to achieve soaring success – we need a dramatic paradigm shift.
So let’s focus on debiasing our organisations, not our people. Here are three steps to help you do it.
1. Embrace conscious action: be self-aware
According to Bohnet, strong leadership is essential to creating a diverse workforce. Good leaders recognise the problem, use people analytics to identify the root cause and design new organisational behaviours to overcome them. In the words of acclaimed journalist and Hive Learning Board Advisor Matthew Syed:
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“Leadership is not just about coming up with good strategies. It’s also about becoming a cultural architect.”
This is especially true when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Lead by example. Be self-aware and sweat the (seemingly) small stuff.
Blenheim Chalcot’s recent International Women’s Day event inspired us to think more about the ways we can be self-aware when it comes to creating an inclusive culture. We talked about how our deep-seated biases about women and men’s roles in society can often be a barrier to gender diversity.
As Sheryl Sandberg writes in Lean In, “When male employees leave work early to care for a sick child, they can face negative consequences that range from being teased to receiving lower performance ratings to reducing their chance for a raise or promotion.”
Men are not alone in facing these challenges, but it’s essential that we level the playing field when it comes to our home lives too. We will only achieve true diversity when we embrace everyone as equal partners at work, and at home. This is bigger than just creating organisational policies – we have to think about our language, our tone and the actions we take every day too.
Which messages do we send with our own behaviour? Do we routinely send emails after hours? Do we grumble about people not being physically present in the office when they’re working from home? An ‘anytime, anywhere’ culture is one of the top barriers holding women back from leadership roles according to McKinsey and Company, and these subtle cues impact how both men and women approach work-life balance.
Be aware, be open and take conscious steps to avoid the subtleties that stem from unconscious bias.
But that’s easier said than done, right?
2. Find a way to inspire daily consciousness around diversity and inclusion
It’s all very well to suggest that we should consciously question our actions, but digging up the roots of unconscious bias is hard.
Unconscious bias training doesn’t work because it doesn’t inspire continual action. Instead it’s often treated as a one-off ‘tick box’ exercise, which doesn’t embed a real culture of inclusivity.
Embed diversity into your organisation’s daily consciousness. As Bohnet says:
“Do not focus on changing minds – help people find a better way without having to memorise or even think about it.”
The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Women in Sport Commission is a brilliant example of this.
The IOC is close to achieving their target of 50/50 participation from men and women in the Olympic Games. But as of 2016, the proportion of women in their elite governing bodies is less than 30%.
One of the many steps the IOC are taking to support their mission of encouraging and promoting diversity is the creation of their Advancing Women in Sport online community. The forum was developed with Hive Learning to connect and inspire women in sport.
The IOC’s strategy of regularly sharing useful tools, new research and inspiring stories puts gender diversity at the forefront of the community’s minds. The online community is easily accessible – available any time, anywhere – with a regular stream of new and stimulating content. Plus, the community offers a collaborative space for members to share their own experiences. This helps the community to feel deeply connected to the issue, enabling them to own, embrace and consciously tackle the issue of gender parity – every day.
While this is a fairly new initiative, the inspiring stories created as a result of this new community are food for thought.
To make a success of your diversity and inclusion programme, find a way to encourage daily action that helps your teams own and take conscious steps to overcome their bias too.
3. Redesign your organisational behaviours
The key to tackling unconscious bias is not to focus on training courses, but to go deeper. Uncover the root causes of biased behaviours and then design organisational processes to avoid them.
When Helena Morrissey, the founder of the 30% Club – the initiative that called for a minimum of 30% women on FTSE-100 boards in 2010 – became CEO of Newton Investments, she made Fridays optional for all of her employees. Just as many men took up the optional 4 day week as women and what followed was a cultural shift; women who worked part-time stopped feeling guilty and everyone embraced this new way of flexible working.
But flexible working isn’t the only way to create an inclusive culture. Adapt your processes to minimise unconscious bias right across the employee lifecycle. Think about how you can adapt the ways you attract, interview, hire, onboard, develop, work daily, retain, manage parental leave and more.
That can be a daunting thought, so use your people data to work out the best place to start. When assessing the critical components of highly diverse and inclusive organisations, McKinsey identified that all of them used people analytics to identify where they had the biggest diversity gaps. Then they restructured their processes to match:
“Highly diverse organizations recognize the necessity of building an inclusive organizational culture, and they use a combination of “hard” and “soft” wiring to create a coherent narrative and program that resonates with employees and stakeholders, helping to drive sustainable change.”
A great example of an organisation ahead of its time was The Boston Symphony Orchestra who used blind auditions to eliminate gender bias and diversify their largely male orchestra in the 1950s.
In the early stages of their diversity programme, auditionees took to the stage to play from behind a screen to conceal their gender in the hope that more women would make it past the first round of auditions. But the judging panel still sent more male musicians than female musicians through to the next round.
On delving deeper, they identified this was because the auditioning panel could hear the sound of women’s high heels as they walked on stage. Upon discovery, the orchestra made all of the musicians take off their shoes. What changed? Almost 50% of the candidates who made it to the next round were women.
Experiment: trial different change programmes to see how they stick. And signpost: create a collaborative, always on space that enables you to inspire daily, conscious action around challenging unconscious bias.
Last but not least, remember how far the breadth of creating an inclusive culture spans. In this article, we’ve focused on just a few aspects of gender diversity. But that’s just one area that needs work; we need to think about how our organisational processes can be inclusive of cultures, minorities, working styles and many other areas too.
In Susan Cain’s renowned book ‘Quiet: the power of introverts’, she explains the importance of giving introverts – who may not find it easy to work in traditional hierarchical and power structures – equal opportunities to contribute. Just because we may be less likely to speak out in meetings or want to socialise after work doesn’t mean we don’t have something valuable to contribute too.
When it comes to building a diverse, inclusive, high-performance team, there’s a lot of work to do. But the rewards will be rich. In Cain’s words:
“Everyone shines, given the right lighting.”
About the author
Angus McCarey is the CEO of Hive Learning – the collaborative learning app for leaders, teams and organisations. The mobile-first platform helps people all over the world grow their skills together every day, by turning learning into habit. Find out more at hivelearning.com