My passion for diversity and inclusion comes from my heritage and growing up in South Africa in what was a racially segregated and male-dominated society. Fortunately, early in my career, I was able to experience different cultures and get a different perspective. I learned there is enormous strength in diversity.
The volume of data showing that diverse organisations – whether neurodiverse, racially, gender or generationally diverse – perform better than their peers, backs this up. Lorenzo and Reeves found companies with above-average diversity have higher innovation revenues, while McKinsey found executive gender and ethnic diversity correlate with profitability.
Whatever the numbers show, however, businesses who just focus on diversity through the lens of entitlement and concentrate on getting the numbers for reporting are missing the point. Organisations need to not only attract talent from a wider pool but also make use of those talents.
Premier League football teams don’t restrict their choice of players to one country, after all. They select from all over the world. Why is that? Because they recognise that a wider group of players contain a broader and more valuable range of skill-sets and experiences. The same principle applies to the workplace. When businesses build teams that are diverse, in age, gender or background, they build better teams.
But the benefit goes beyond the breadth of capability, it is also about diversity of thought. By this, I mean that there are many different ways to think about any topic or issue and the way each person interprets and interacts with the world will differ depending on their own unique identity, culture and personal experience.
Businesses that encourage diversity of thought are happy for people to contribute views that differ from the mainstream consensus. Employees feel more valued, while businesses benefit by getting a broader perspective on key issues.
Struggling with diversity of thought
When businesses hire people from a similar background and with a similar upbringing, they tend not to get diversity of thought, and even those that do recruit more widely will also struggle if they fail to actively encourage their diverse workforce to express their views.
The result will be a reinforcement of the sense of stagnation that characterises some boardrooms. Businesses will be less bold and more conservative. With a narrower range of viewpoints, they’ll struggle to discover new ways of doing things and remain locked into old ways of working.
Different departments and roles within the organisation, such as product design, research and development, or customer service can be negatively impacted too. The less diverse the organisation’s customer service team, the less likely they are to have experience that matches that of their customer base, and the less likely that they can show that customer base empathy. A lack of diversity of thought also impacts staff directly. Employees who don’t see their own cultural identities represented in the workplace feel less sense of belonging, resulting in higher staff churn and lower productivity.
The urgent challenge of gender diversity
So, given these challenges, how can organisations kick-start the process of tackling them and building balanced, diverse teams that feel free to express their thoughts? While generational diversity, racial diversity, neurodiversity, and diversity of sexual orientation are major issues, one of the biggest imbalances in society today is around gender diversity.
Just 19% of UK employees think there is gender equality in their workplace, according to new research by technology giant Samsung. Moreover, workplace gender stereotypes are reportedly still widespread in the UK, with 44% of workers reporting that they still believe certain jobs are exclusively male or female.
There are still many industries today where few women are present in large numbers and those that are, struggle to get their voices heard. The technology sector is one of these examples; whilst tackling gender inequality has been on the agenda for many years, the progress is far too slow. Women simply aren’t entering technology jobs at the same rate as men. A report from TrustRadius found that 72% of women in tech report being outnumbered by men in business meetings by a ratio of at least 2:1.
As a result, the industry is lacking in positive role models which significantly contributes to the 56% of women who leave technology jobs mid-career – double the turnover rate for men. Losing the talents of a significant proportion of the workforce in this way is unsustainable and contributing to a skills shortage across the industry. Clearly, technology roles need to be made more accessible for women and career development opportunities that are viable in the long-term need to be created, particularly as mothers are more likely to carry a disproportionate share of childcare duties, and therefore require part-time or more flexible roles.
Building a more diverse future
Currently too little is being done across society to solve these problems but there is much that can be improved. If businesses encourage and support female talent to take up leadership roles, they’ll create role models which will help inspire the next generation of female leaders. But companies should not be left thinking they are doing this in a vacuum. There has to be a wider societal focus.
Government can and must play a role in implementing policies that help empower women in the workplace, as well as promoting their equal representation. The Government’s recent report on Empowering Women at Work, published in March 2021 is a positive step forward here but there is much more to do and it starts with education.
The Government can, and should be, playing a key role in shaping the approach to gender identity in state education. It can make a positive difference here by encouraging schools to start championing girls, from a young age, to dream big and provide them with education and resources that don’t limit their aspirations.
To tackle gender diversity in the workplace you have to start early and focus on tackling the stereotyping of young girls who are taught from an early age by society that they are different, and can’t be astronauts, firefighters or engineers etc. It was to correct this misconception that my wife and I decided to launch Inner Wings, a charitable foundation that aims at building confidence, courage and bravery in young girls aged 6 to 12, through a wide range of available programmes and events.
If society can get the next generation of girls to grow into confident young women, believing they can be anything they want, we’ll see more women in space and in the boardroom, and if employers can support and encourage them down this path too, we’ll see more diversity of thought in every business. After all, if you aren’t proactively tackling issues of inequality, you are part of the problem.