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No quick fixes in diversity and inclusion

11 December 2014 – by Carolien Bijen, &samhoud women

I am standing here with a magic wand in my hand. I lend it from my daughter Janne. She is 5 years old. When she is my age, I want her to have the same opportunities in working life as her friend Fabian. That is my mission. And with this magic wand I wish I could create instant gender balance in organisations. Wooosh and the number of women in the higher ranks of the organisation increased! Instantly! Wouldn’t that be great? But I have to disappoint you, and let me assure you, I tried. It is not working. No magic.

When we are talking about diversity and inclusion in many cases a lot of emphasis is put on the first, the diversity bit. And although diversity is much more than gender, in many organisations the choice is made to focus on gender diversity primarily. Which is a logical choice by the way, because it is easy to assess and to measure, unlike other forms of diversity. But that aside.

My point is: Women are hot. I mean the women topic is hot. Many organisations make plans to increase the number of women in higher management. And for good reasons. Because it pays off. Research shows that gender diversity creates value. Organisations like Catalyst and McKinsey researched the correlation between financial success and the share of women in boards. It is a positive one. In the Catalyst research the companies with more women in the board showed a 70% higher return on invested capital to the ones that did not.

Also, female consumers represent a growth market that is larger than the market growth of China and India combined. This makes diversity a business opportunity. As Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman said recently: “Gender balance is a business issue, not a women’s issue or an HR issue. Remember that 80% of our consumers are women. They are responsible for two-thirds of consumer spending. More balanced organisations achieve a higher level of financial performance.” Whilst so far it may have sounded as an advertisement campaign for D&I, the killer argument has yet to come!

Research shows that diverse teams, when led well, are more innovative and creative than homogenous teams. Knowing this you start to wonder why not all hiring managers are knocking on doors in order to hire and promote women. Because they don’t.

The number of women in boards is stuck at a staggering 16% in the US and Europe. With the Netherlands at only 10%. At this rate my daughter Janne will be 49 years old the time a level playing field in boards has been reached. Too little too late. And the percentage is not the only thing that is stuck in this debate. And then I am not talking about sticky floors or glass ceilings. In my experience gender diversity is a tough subject to drive for most organisations. Many people have asked me for positive examples of companies where they have a winning gender balance. And then I have to remain silent. The only exceptions are relatively young organisation with diversity in their DNA, where innovation is their reason for existence, such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple.

And I think it is tough because the second bit of D&I, the inclusion part, gets less attention. Inclusion is about creating a culture in which everyone feels valued and is supported to use their unique talents in the best way possible. So allow me to reframe the subject. My belief is that strategies purely focused on diversity in the way of the number of women in higher management positions are a dead end street. It is not primarily our gender that defines us. All women are different, they are not a homogenous group and neither are men. There are very feminine men and very masculine women. And there are very ambitious women and less ambitious women as there are very ambitious and less ambitious men. And because women are not a homogenous group but are viewed and treated as such it’s tough to get ahead.

In the media you see a lot of women blaming women, men blaming women, women blaming men. They sure love a cat fight. They do the cause no good. Many of these debates revolve around parenting and the choices that women (and thus also their partners) make in their caretaking roles. And we are very opiniated about this in the Netherlands. This makes that for many women the Diversity and Inclusion area is like a Catch22 discussion. Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t. Our stereotypes of women and very close related, motherhood, do not at all synchronise with our image of successful leaders. With this in mind it is striking to know that our research shows that successful women have more children than less successful women and more often have a partner with a large job.

That brings me to a very specific Dutch element to this discussion. In The Netherlands  the choice to work in part time jobs is the number 1 biggest hurdle for career advancement. And although it looks like a logical decision for many couples, in most cases the choice for the 3-5 day model, means end of career for her. It is extremely difficult to get back on the career track once you have left the fast lane. So if a sole focus on gender diversity is a dead end street where can organisations find a way out? The answer lies in the second part of D&I, in an inclusive organisational culture. Maybe you have gotten the hint by now that this is not a quick fix.

Our experience, supported by our recent research, shows that its the unwritten rules of the organization, the inclusion part, the cultural part that is the parameter to watch in order to grow a more successful team and organisation. It is not so much a matter of implementing the right instruments, policies or processes. It has much more to do with if people feel that they could make use of those policies and whether or not that is the norm in the team or the organisation.

The level of support of managers is critical in these. Do your team members feel valued, feel appreciated, feel connected? This is where the business case for diversity should not only be in your head but also in your heart. This is where you come in. Everybody looks at the world with different eyes. And that is exactly what makes diversity in teams so enriching. But we do have to realize that we might have created some unconscious prejudices also called mindbugs or think in stereotypes. And to a certain level that is ok, usefull even. It is the way our mind deals efficiently with the influx of information. I will share with you a well known example. Do you know the story of the surgeon and the patient?

A man and his son are driving in a car one day, when they get into a fatal accident. The man is killed instantly. The boy is knocked unconscious, but he is still alive. He is rushed to hospital, and will need immediate surgery. The doctor enters the emergency room, looks at the boy, and says… “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son.” So, the question is, how is this possible?

It becomes a problem when mindbugs or stereotypes start to affect the quality of our decisions. And we no longer decide on the basis of the right information. One well known example in organizations is the image of the ideal leader. When you would ask everyone in an organisation to describe his or her ideal leader you will hear attributes that are surprisingly similar to those of people on the recent leadership teams. And when selecting talent it is only logical that people will look for exactly those attributes when assessing leadership potential.

A last reality check before I will leave you. Although diversity can add a lot of value to your team and your organisation it is not always fun. Diversity can be time consuming, difficult and unsuccessful. It is a normal reflex to feel comfortable with people like yourself. People that you understand, speak the same language, know where they went to school and so on. This means that you really have to want it in order to act upon it.

And one more thing: of course the number of women in higher management cannot be a goal in itself nor the single motivation to strive for a more inclusive culture. It should be the intrinsic belief that an inclusive culture creates value and that it helps you create a brighter future, every day. From that perspective it is even more clear that diversity and inclusion is not a delegated responsibility. In fact, I am happy that I can use my little wand after all. Because with one magic swipe I can give you all a promotion. You have all been promoted to the diversity team. Congratulations and good luck!

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One Response to No quick fixes in diversity and inclusion

  1. Berber says:

    Dear Carolien, good article. I support and share your vision, however I also think that diversity should come from the inside. A lot of external initiatives support workforce equality, but women and workforce emancipation has to be fueled by perceptual change and intrinsic motivation from the inside. Check out my vision and opinion on this topic:http://techmom.nl/2014/10/14/venus-versus-mars/.

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