“When I talk to managers, I get the feeling they are important. When I talk to leaders, I get the feeling I am important.” Alexander den Heijer, 2014
I spoke with an engineering organisation recently who wanted to organise a professional women’s networking event. As the chair of a gender balance group, this type of thing piques my interest, so I asked a few questions. Why do you want to do that? Turns out they had some “diversity dollars” to invest and thought this would be a good way to show they were serious about moving women forwards within their organisation. What would you have said to them? I suggested instead that they might invest in advancing their middle and senior management on inclusive behaviours, which, in my view, would go much further to helping them meet their goal of advancing women in their organisation than throwing them a nice party.
That organisation isn’t unique in its misdirected good intentions. I think many of our organisations will have well-funded employee networks for different protected characteristics. I believe in the power of affinity networks for anyone seeking peers and friendships based on a shared, lived experience. But, too often, it falls to this group to identify and lead the organisational and structural change required in an organisation to progress equality. Our focus as business leaders ends at supporting the group and doesn’t extend to actually changing our systems which cause those in the groups to feel “other”.
I’m a big believer in people before performance (thank you Simon Sinek). If we are invested in our people, we will have healthy thriving businesses. As leaders, I believe it’s our job to cultivate the culture of our organisation, to interrogate and continuously improve our systems, and to provide an environment for our people to do their best work. If our people are unable to thrive within our systems, then as leaders that’s our job to fix that – the systems, not the people. We need to get behind – or even in front of – our networks, and affect real systematic change within our organisations.
Ironically or not, our systems (how we support, reward, recognise and promote) are designed to keep those in power, in power. This means that only those in power can change the system, and this change feels hard, because to call into question the fairness of a system which you are a product of, seems undeniably hypocritical. Yet, to now live up to the positions we’re in, it’s imperative we use our privilege for good and forever rebalance the playing field so that everyone has access to opportunities.
My 10 tips to make inclusion everyone’s business at your organisation: (call out box?)
o Replace occasional Safety Moments in meetings with Inclusion Moments
o Add D&I to the agenda of your lead team meetings
o Encourage self-education on D&I – sharing books/talks/social media educator recommendations
o Replace Unconscious Bias training with Conscious Inclusion training
o Promote reverse mentoring for leaders
o Adopt inclusion goals in personal development planning
o De-bias your opportunity selection process – opening as many assignment opportunities up to all as possible, rather than relying on recommendations which may be subject to bias
o Invite challenge to your work from people who think differently to you
o Join your affinity networks as an ally and listen
o Role model inclusivity – do the above, be open about your learning, and encourage those around you.
Karen Blanc is the chair of Axis, Aberdeen’s leading gender balance network. The group supports individuals, leaders and organisations in the pursuit of gender balanced teams and systems. She is also a member of the OGUK D&I Task Force and operations director of Atkins’ UK&ME offshore energy business.