In the past decade organisations have invested significant resources to try to address gender bias in senior management. But these efforts aren’t really working. Women account for just 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs and fewer than 15% of corporate executives at top companies worldwide. The only area where women pull ahead of men is in human resources, where they account for 71% of all HR managers.
The initiatives adopted by organisations to advance women tend to include mentoring programmes, networking, coaching, increased maternity leave, child care benefits, and flexible work options. These efforts, and the tens of millions of dollars spent on them, are treating symptoms. Real diversity efforts require organisations to address the social patterns that stifle women’s careers, not just the symptoms that result from them.
Like many failed organisational changes, current approaches to diversity and inclusion run into the brick wall of the status quo. To change that status quo, organisations need to radically rethink their approach to diversity and focus on ways to mainstream diversity and inclusion in local team practices. Organisations can identify new ways of changing the social system surrounding how work is done by addressing three factors.
Focus on Local Practices
The ways in which people work is a local problem, as are the ways they discriminate. Despite standard operating procedures and global norms, people create local patterns everywhere they work, and these local patterns define work more strongly than centralised initiatives. The gender pay gap provides an example of localised bias. According to a 2016 study in Australia, the gender pay gap is influenced by a number of interrelated factors, including stereotypes and socialised norms about how women and men should behave in the workforce. These factors often crop up in the social system of work (e.g., the kind of work we do with our direct colleagues). Local teams define socialised norms and create their own stereotypes of who the A players are; in aggregate, these local practices significantly undermine diversity efforts. These local teams maintain and enforce ways of working that are beyond the purview of corporate policy and initiatives but are fundamental to enabling how work is really done.
Local teams would never overtly describe themselves as biased against diversity, but when you look at how they approach work and what they do socially and day-to-day, they are. Edith Cooper, the global head of human capital management at Goldman Sachs, shared her experience: “People frequently assumed I was the most junior person in the room, when in fact, I was the most senior. I constantly needed to share my credentials when nobody else had to share theirs.” Because of deeply localised assumptions, teams inadvertently perpetuate the status quo and marginalise women in daily interactions. On their own, these interactions are imperceptible; in aggregate, they are exhausting to anyone of “difference” in an organisation.
Instead of combating these problems through mass centralisation, organisations serious about diversity and inclusion need to reorient to mass localisation. What are the levers you can pull to get teams to localise a focus on diversity and inclusion into their day-to-day interactions and expectations of one another? The answer is not merely a programme or a set of posters on the wall; it’s an understanding of how the organisation works at its most local level.
Keep Communication Open
Organisational norms are very powerful. A simple programme of teaching inclusion tactics can have little hope in the face of a wall of conformity. As an example, most organisations aspire to use “flexible work” programmes, including flexible hours, working from home, and the like, as a means to address diversity. But they rarely work. For flexible programmes to succeed, organisations need to rethink a range of functional rhythms that are biased against them: talent processes that reward face time, structures that don’t support meaningful flexible roles, and team practices that fail to allow virtual workers to meaningfully contribute to direction. While policies and habits like these don’t intend to discriminate, in the aggregate and in their application, they do.
To overcome problems like these, organisations need to create ways for local teams to talk about different experiences at work and what drives them. A single mother with two children experiences the policies and procedures of an organization fundamentally differently than a married middle-aged man. Diversity and inclusion efforts need to attack the inherent systemic biases and assumptions that come into play millions of times a day, in very localised ways, and that are inadvertently supported by legacy policies and procedures. In many ways, organisations are collections of disconnected dialogues that share a set of assumptions about what to fear and what to value. Built into these dialogues are significant biases. Organisations need to enable very different types of dialogue so that local teams can change themselves and reshape how policies affect their members.
Examine Your Own Assumptions
A systemic approach to diversity and inclusion begins with leaders recognising that they are part of the problem. Brett (not his real name) was the CFO of a major multinational. He was sensitive, smart, and thoughtful, and seemed unlikely to succumb to the biases built into the system. But he did.
Brett was discussing a talented woman in his organisation while reviewing questions as part of the organisation’s talent process. “She doesn’t seem to dedicate the extra time that some of her peers do; she frequently needs to leave early to pick up her children,” he said. Was he right? Possibly, but the entire talent system was biased against this woman. Simply by following the protocol of the system, Brett had derailed and handicapped one of his best performers. The hard-wired bias of organisations is something that senior leaders need to become attuned to if they are going to impact their diversity performance. Senior leaders send strong messages with whom they pick for advancement and how they pick them; unless they are deeply focused on sending messages with these decisions, they will perpetuate the status quo.
Leaders who are serious about driving inclusion need to audit essential hiring, evaluation, and promotion processes and actively drive out any biases. As important, they need to realise that they themselves cast big shadows on these issues, and if they are not deeply mindful of their impact, they will reinforce the status quo in a myriad of ways. Rather than creating stand-alone programmes, leaders need innovative ways to embed inclusion in their social system.
Until organisational leaders have the bravery to take a holistic look at diversity and inclusion and understand their true drivers, we’ll be stuck with half-day workshops. And as we all know, a half-day workshop just won’t cut it.