What's not working about D&I

Everyone agrees that D&I is good for business (and the bottom line). So why is it going so horribly wrong, asks Christine Armstrong, author of The Mother of All Jobs.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 14 Feb 2019

I was talking to the head of diversity and inclusion (D&I) at a bank who said: "The problem with D&I is that it always feels lose/lose". She went on to explain that any minor progress made in helping one group do better fuelled resentment from others, despite the team being at pains to show how inclusion is for (and benefits) everyone. She concluded that she needs to change her specialism to a different area of HR that’s more rewarding, maybe around culture and engagement. This was particularly depressing given that we were meeting to discuss how little progress her organisation has made, particularly in attracting and keeping women at senior levels, which is her current area of focus.

Her organisation, like many, has tried a range of activities. They have set up a women’s group. Introduced unconscious bias training. Set some targets at senior levels and made a couple of senior female hires. They’ve invited in some speakers about the benefits of inclusion. They’ve arranged for their leadership team to attend an inclusive leaders workshop. They have piloted, at small scale, more flexible ways of working.

Yet, while doing all of this, the number of senior women has dropped - as has their representation of BAME employees. Their pay gap is expected to be worse in 2019 than in 2018. It wasn’t a great number last year.   

This story isn’t uncommon: even the FCA, which is promoting diversity in the businesses it regulates, is getting worse and not better. Another HR director who presented a three-year inclusion plan to the board at the request of their CEO last year says that, five months later, they have been given no approval but also no rejection of the plans. Concluding that "the very worst answer is silence".

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The question is, what is going wrong when everyone seems to agree that D&I is a good thing, companies are investing in it and want to show results? Having spent the last few months being called into businesses to discuss this subject, these are some of the issues I see.

  • Ironically, given the title, a lot of diversity and inclusion work isn’t tackled in an inclusive way. In many businesses, much of emphasis is still on employee networks (women, BAME, LGTBI+) who are already wholly familiar with the issues, know the changes they want to see and, if empowered, would be cracking on. But they have limited budgets, no formal power, and, in some cases, are losing steam because they know they cannot make a difference this way.  
  • The people whose role it is to work on D&I issues tend to be mid-level, often but not always female, and similarly frustrated that they don’t have more traction. Some report into HRDs who themselves see the issue as one of a competing number of priorities and not the top one. Others say that their bosses want progress but won’t commit to genuine changes in how they do things. "We were allowed to try blind recruitment but no one would act when a manager called the recrtuiter to find out about the candidates before choosing who to see."
  • Leadership teams saying that it does matter and that it impacts on the bottom line - but showing little if any action to indicate it’s on their agenda. One D&I lead says he can "make ExCo 'fake' action by drafting emails for them to send but they would never suggest or - God forbid - do or say the right things without my 100% initiation". Meanwhile many note that there are men at different levels of the business quietly muttering that they are not sure why they don’t matter anymore. "I mean, why don’t they get coaching, mentoring and a special group with a budget?" Just as the women are wondering why they always have to be fixed by someone.
  • Broad brush/vague goals: more senior women, better BAME representation without any great thought into the specific needs of the business (talent, retention, training).
  • Progress being shown by the policy "look! We offer flexible work" without acknowledging that everyone in the business knows you will never be promoted if you take it up because there is no appetite to redesign the jobs in question.

Which could all be pretty depressing. But there are businesses making real progress. What are they doing differently? Well here are a few things:

The first is that their leadership teams are committed to the issue. Emma Codd at Deloitte explains how her boss is fully on board with the issues and they have moved to agile working to achieve their goals. She has also wisely tied in a financial win to keep minds focused and has consistently demonstrated progress on cost savings.

Others are taking a fresh look at how they work and doing more to widen the talent pool: through social mobility and recruitment programmes, better benefits, wellbeing initiatives, a culture of inclusion, but, especially, with more focus on work-life balance and managing total hours. High profile examples are rolling in, with Wellcome Trust saying they might be piloting four day weeks, companies in San Francisco and Berlin experimenting with very focused five and six-hour working days and many companies trying different versions of agile working. Not all these experiments will work but trying them is the important first step.

A few are starting to include the men in conversations about what inclusion really means. This is surely critical. We can’t change things from the outside group if the inside group is resistant. As D&I expert Claudia Iton says: "Assuming that white, heterosexual men will be the benevolent custodians of the new order, rather than feel threatened themselves, is misguided. The key is to build inclusive environments where everyone feels like they belong."

But that also means dealing with people who don’t think that everyone belongs. "The hard truth is that real progress will be only achieved when we can finally get rid of the dinosaurs always blocking any sort of progress," says one person battling these issues. As the words are said, I can almost see the scanning of the sky for meteors.

Until the obstacles are tackled, we may continue with lots of words and little action on this subject.

Christine Armstrong is contributing editor of Management Today and author of The Mother of All Jobs.

She will be discussing "The Bullies and the (Queen) Bees" at Management Today's Inspiring Women in Business Edinburgh conference on 7th March 2019. Speakers include the former leader of the Scottish Labour party Kezia Dugdale and advertising legend Dame Cilla Snowball, chair of the Women's Business Council. Book your tickets here


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