Diversity and inclusion: Do CEOs really care?

For all the talk around D&I, progress over the last decade has been mixed.

by Stephen Frost
Last Updated: 31 Jan 2020

We've been through a decade of tumultuous change. In the political sphere, there's been a resurgence of far-right movements around the world, NAFTA has been rewritten, Britain is exiting the EU and NATO is under strain.

But there has also been great progress on the diversity and inclusion front: marriage equality has expanded to multiple countries, including Argentina, Australia, Finland, Taiwan and the US. Finland set a new record by having every major political party in parliament led by a woman under 35, and Rwanda set a record with 64 per cent of its elected government being women.

In business, too, the conversation around diversity and inclusion is getting louder. But have things actually changed? 

It’s easy to feel discouraged when women make up only 17 per cent of executives in consulting, 15 per cent in financial services, and 11 per cent in tech. Not to mention the fact that in the FTSE 100 there are still more CEOs named David (14) and even more named John (17) than there are women (6). However, increased advocacy, laws and pressure about this problem are helping to shift the dial – the proportion of women on boards of the FTSE 100 increased from 12.5 per cent in 2010 to 32.4 per cent in 2019.

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We've also made progress in our understanding of bias and discrimination. Ten years ago, the words “unconscious/implicit bias” were relegated purely to academic circles; now, they're common parlance. The term "psychological safety” was only used in academic journals back in 2010; now C-suite executives discuss its importance.

A decade ago, the common understanding was that women are paid less because they don’t negotiate, which makes them seem less competent; now we know that when women do ask for more money, there's a backlash. Men negotiating pay rises "know their value" while women doing the same are viewed as “cold and abrasive”.

Now we get why inclusion problems still persist in the workplace despite all the effort and conversation.

The biggest changes in approach, though, come from the very reasons why organisations are working on diversity and inclusion in the first place. A decade ago, most were driven by compliance. It was Diversity 101: legal obligations and attaining a minimum, not adding value per se. 

As social consciousness around diversity and inclusion increased, many organisations moved to a “Diversity 2.0” approach, understanding that consumers want to be reflected by the organisations they buy from. Brands ranging from Nike to Kellogg's put diversity at the centre of major ad campaigns – and then faced pressure to back them up with concerete action. 

For example, Lloyds Bank ran a number of ads last year about the impact of subtle discriminatory language at work, yet its gender pay gap is still 42 per cent for salary and 67 per cent for bonuses. That gap in marketing versus reality is stark, and people notice. It causes a credibility gap that can actually make things worse in the eyes of the public.

As a result, businesses have found real success by moving to the “Inclusion 3.0” approach. This is where diversity and inclusion initiatives are not something done on the side, but rather are a key aspect of the way they do business. Inclusive thinking is embedded in all the decisions they make. Mars is a great example.

So while the numbers suggest that little progress has been made, the change in consciousness around diversity and inclusion is a substantive step forward. We can look to the next decade with optimism.

Stephen Frost is the founder of Frost Included, a consultancy that works with HR professionals to help them embed inclusion in their decision making. His latest book, co-authored with Raafi-Karim Alidina, is called Building an Inclusive Organisation.

Image credit: Dick Whittington Studio/Corbis via Getty Images



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