Diversity and inclusion: how innovative organisations are building equality

During the month of December 2021, AMBITION will be highlighting its top 25 most-read articles of the year in reverse order, in the form of a thought leadership advent calendar. Here’s what is behind today’s door.

Courageous and innovative organisations are leading the change by aligning equity and inclusion with their business strategy, finds Kristen Liesch

Originally published on 22 February 2021

Whether you call it D&I, DE&I, DIBS, DIBE, EI&B – the list goes on – organisations big and small around the world continue to ‘do’ diversity and inclusion in one way or another. And while the acronyms continue to change, by and large, the tactics remain the same in all the but the most innovative organisations.

Consider the following headlines:

‘Academic Mentoring for Women Students and Faculty: A New Look at an Old Way to Get Ahead’


‘We Need STEM Mentors Who Can Reduce Bias and Fight Stereotypes’

One of these was published in 1983, and the other was published 4 days ago, and is but one illustration of how decades-old tactics get dressed up in new clothes, maybe feature the addition of the lingo du-jour, and get (re)deployed. Year over year, companies around the world continue to lean heavy on status quo solutions – they look to the left and look to the right and do pretty much exactly what their peers are doing to solve one of the world’s most important and seemingly unfixable problems – inequality.

Perhaps these leaders and these organisations are too afraid to step away from the played out playbook of standard equity, diversity, and inclusion interventions. But the old standards that we’ve relied on for decades that may raise awareness are not fundamentally leading to truly equitable behavioural, cultural, strategic, or systemic change.

To the list of tactics that have either never actually shown to move the needle, are so poorly implemented that they fall far short of the goal, or consistently produce backlash effects include:

These are, however, key elements of the diversity and inclusion ‘industrial complex.’ (If you think I’m being a bit hyperbolic referring to D&I work that way, consider that more than $10B is spent on diversity training every year in the U.S.)

Take, for example, unconscious bias training, which has been around since the labour movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Today, it’s mandated in just about every setting you can imagine: in school districts, in justice departments, in student governments, in businesses large and small. And yet, we’ve never managed to find evidence that it leads to less biased people or organisations (or decisions, or products, or services, etc.). It just doesn’t work. There’s even good reason to question whether it was ever designed to work in the first place.

When examples of real progress are so hard to come by, and it can be difficult to see behind fancy window dressing, where do leaders and organisations look for tactics that will help them tap into the very real business benefits of cultivating a diverse, inclusive, and equitable organisation (and make good on their bold diversity statements)?

What do cutting-edge organisations do when the typical diversity training programs pursued relentlessly as a solution to bias don’t work? What do they do when tactical remedies like mentorship programs intend to elevate underrepresented populations but don’t scratch the surface of the systemic problem holding those individuals back? What do they do when equity strategies that are a direct copy of the words from an organisation down the road end up feeling hollow and disconnected and fail to change the everyday decisions and behaviour that keep systems of inequality exactly as they’ve always been?

They innovate and look for innovative solutions.

Leading organisations are riding a wave of change that puts the lens of inquiry squarely over the very DNA of their culture, strategy, and operations, and they’re looking at how their systems, and products, and services can be transformed to actually create greater equity and equality in the world. They’re bringing a new attitude to diversity and inclusion work, too. They’re ditching the punitive, risk-mitigation mantle and framing equity work as strategic, and innovative, inviting their people to reflect on what they’re doing already that might be perpetuating bias and inequity, to collaborate together – to explore and experiment – and co-design the right next steps that are uniquely attuned to their organisation, its context and its people.

There are three ways innovative organisations are building equality better:

1Innovators start from the point of acknowledging bias, discrimination, and inequity exist in society, and therefore show up in organisations. Even the most purpose-driven organisations are permeable to the pitfalls of, well, people and all the hang ups that come with people (both conscious and unconscious).

Carrie Jones, founder and principal at the award-winning JPA Health explains, ‘As a marketing and communication agency, it’s our job to reach a broad spectrum of audiences. It’s my long standing belief that our employees should mirror the world we live in. Our agency should be made up of beautifully diverse staff, essentially giving us an edge in effectively reaching a wide range of audiences. But here’s the catch. We’re all humans, and consciously or not, we bring with us our own unique set of biases, stereotypes and prejudices. So, at JPA, we start by acknowledging that hidden bias exists everywhere. Only then can we begin the hard work that drives change.’ Cutting-edge agencies like JPA know it’s not about proving or arguing that things like bias and discrimination exist. It’s about getting curious about how they show up – in products, services, processes, communications, and so on – and then rolling up sleeves and working together to transform how we do what we do.

2Innovators have the courage to ask hard questions about how bias, discrimination and inequity show up in their organisations so they can revolutionise their cultures and become places where everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential. They ask questions like ‘How have you observed and/or experienced bias or discrimination here?’ ‘Do you feel you have an equal opportunity to succeed alongside your peers?’ These organisations create the conditions where their people can share candidly (often, anonymously) about their lived experience, and then they act on what they learn by engaging their people in the co-creation of tailored solutions.

A few years ago, the Wilson College of Textiles, a global leader in textile education and research, got some disappointing results on their employee engagement survey that told them something wasn’t working when it came to their culture. ‘We decided to embark on what would become a transformational journey, and it started when we found the courage to ask questions of our community members, and pay particular attention to those individuals from under-represented and under-resourced populations,’ explains Alicia Lecceardone, Assistant Dean for Culture, Talent, and Human Resources. ‘We had some very frank conversations about inequity and how it was experienced by our people.’ College leaders couldn’t have known then that they were setting a new cultural foundation that would not only see their engagement numbers jump by more than 40%, but that would support them through the enormous challenges that 2021 had in store. ‘That cultural work set us up to be able to come together as a community of faculty and staff through quarantine and in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. So many times in the past we’d tried to create camaraderie through programming. Now, without a set agenda, we can come together closer than ever because we really know how to listen to and hear from one another.’

3Innovators ask how they can be catalysts for greater equity. Take, for example, Virgin Media UK who have decided to provide free mobile data to ensure families facing financial difficulties can get online and connect their kids to remote-learning. What Virgin is doing is actually an equity measure – an incredibly valuable one to those students and families who would otherwise be disproportionately disadvantaged during the pandemic lockdown. At Virgin Media UK, the organisation uncovers opportunities to unlock the inherent value in creating greater equity and inclusion with the Equity Sequence™ practice. Victoria Whitehouse, Inclusion Lead at Virgin Media explains, ‘The Equity Sequence™ is a powerful tool that enables our leadership teams to put equity at the heart of decision making. It has given us an incredible opportunity to accelerate the pace of change toward a more equitable and just organisation and society.’ 

Gone are the days when an organisation can get away with pithy statements and the ‘gold standard’ of unconscious bias training, employee resource groups, and mentorship programs. Really courageous and innovative organisations are leading the change by aligning equity and inclusion with their business strategy and doubling down at that intersection with new tools that empower them to have real impact on the world.

Dr Kristen Liesch is Founder & Co-CEO of Tidal Equality. Tidal Equality helps organisations build equality with innovations in the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion space including the Equity Sequence™, a radically simple practice anyone can use to make systemic change.




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