Over the past few decades – and especially in recent years – more companies have both learned to appreciate and actively invest in racial and gender diversity. Crucially, and in similarity with other issues related to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues, business leaders have learned to embrace the long-term financial benefits of being proactive on D&I, an evolution that goes far beyond the approach which saw diversity as a public relations, marketing or compliance function.
But these welcome developments don’t mean that corporate executives and other business leaders have completed their journey to fully embracing and promoting D&I. On the contrary, the acceptance of D&I in the corporate world signifies the beginning – not the end – of a transition to transformation. The statistics on the number of minorities and women in leadership roles in Corporate America remain underwhelming, to say the least, and the blunt instrument of mandatory quotas – for corporate board member positions, for instance – does little to truly foster not just diversity but a culture of inclusion that values each individual for their contributions, and not just because they allow HR to check off boxes.
When it comes to race and gender, then, companies still have work to do. But another area in which thinking about D&I is still developing is in extending diversity beyond race and gender to embrace people with different backgrounds, experiences and points of view from the norm. To me, the core purpose of D&I is not to present a perfectly representative workforce; that’s just a hopeful consequence of greater focus to D&I, not the goal itself. Rather, the benefit of D&I to companies is in having access to people who can challenge the status quo and not just reflect the mentality of a small, privileged subset of society. That’s why overly focusing on race and gender can be counter-productive; if you’re hiring a lot of minorities and women, but they’re all Ivy League graduates from upper-class backgrounds, you won’t reap the full benefits of true D&I.
So, how can companies institutionalize a broader view and embrace of diversity beyond race and gender? Based on my own experience working in D&I initiatives in organizations, I can make a few key recommendations:
- Think about other categories of diversity: Aside from race and gender, there are various types of diversity to consider. Some, like sexual orientation, are increasingly being grouped with race and gender in consideration. But there are others, such as diversity of educational background and attainment, or socio-economic status, that generally aren’t part of the D&I agenda. Ignoring these when selecting people for leadership or board positions can lead to senior teams being overly dominated by people of similar backgrounds and thought processes, resulting in groupthink and an inability to connect with stakeholders like consumers and lower-level employees. Recruiting from narrow fields of study – such as tech firms recruiting only engineers rather than people with vital communication and other “soft” skills – can also undermine performance as businesses expand and diversify.
- Embrace mentoring and social networks: Getting diverse candidates to join an organization is only the first step; you also need to foster a sense of inclusion that retains these employees while encouraging them to contribute to wider success. This entails recognizing that an overly rigid and homogenous corporate culture can snuff out the unique qualities that diverse candidates bring. One way to do this is to connect people from under-represented groups with those in senior leadership, who are often from more traditionally dominant groups, through mentoring relationships or network-building social events. This provides employees from under-represented group access to leading decision-makers, who can also learn from different viewpoints.
- Create internal “focus groups”: Finally, companies can promote an inclusive culture beyond racial and gender tolerance by soliciting constant feedback from diverse employees. Setting up focus groups based on categories like socio-economic background and then running key decisions by them for commentary can help infuse diverse viewpoints into how organizations are run. Again, the key here is to go beyond the narrow categories of race and gender, which often obscure meaningful underlying differences between individuals.
The acceptance that diversity is essential for businesses is something which should be celebrated, but we shouldn’t become complacent. We still have a long way to go on race and gender, let alone these additional, typically overlooked categories. Importantly, we have to recognize that filling quotas or assimilating diverse employees into a homogenous corporate culture will not yield the much-touted benefits of D&I, and corporate thinking about diversity but always be evolving in line with a changing world.