Alice MacDonald explores why diverse representation isn’t the end goal you think it is
What happens when an organisation reaches 50% women in leadership? Or when the CEO identifies as LGBTQ+? Does it mean they’ve crossed the finishing line for diversity and inclusion (D&I)? It’s a trap many companies fall into – thinking that having diverse representation across all levels is the end goal of D&I efforts and training. However, this isn’t conducive to long-term, sustainable change, within companies or within wider society.
The truth is that any form of diverse representation, even at leadership level, shouldn’t be the goal of D&I training efforts. Just because you have representation of people of colour at leadership level, it doesn’t mean that racism no longer exists within your organisation. Just because your CEO identifies as LGBTQ+, it doesn’t mean that your policies and culture aren’t embodying damaging cisnormativity and heteronormativity. If an organisation’s commitment to inclusion is authentic, then diverse representation should be an important stepping-stone – but not a final goal. It can be incredibly tempting to give yourself a ‘gold star’ if you have achieved diverse representation in a particular area of your business. But this can operate as a shiny façade which prevents you considering whether or not inequality exists in your workplace and having some difficult but incredibly important conversations.
Diversity targets are important, when we focus on them, we can forget about the complexity of identity
That’s not to say that diverse representation in leadership isn’t important. Looking to the senior ranks of an organisation and seeing someone who reflects your identity can inspire you to think ‘they’ve done it, so I can do it too’. But you shouldn’t mark your organisation’s D&I journey as being over just because there is representation of people from historically excluded groups in positions of power within your company. In fact, if it’s the case that we look to senior leadership and think ‘that’s great, there’s diverse representation’, that’s a sign that we still have work to do. If we operate in a space where some people are elevated while the majority of people are still struggling, this isn’t equality. We need to be working to disrupt systems which create norms and advantage for some over others.
All of this doesn’t even begin to consider intersectionality – the shadow lurking in the corner of all conversations around diversity data in the workplace. Okay, so you’ve got thriving LGBTQ+ representation and your LGBTQ+ network is doing great things. But have you got good representation of queer women? What about LGBTQ+ people of colour? Whilst diversity targets are important, when we focus on them, we can forget about the complexity of identity. And identity is incredibly multifaceted in a way that targets just can’t account for. Including intersectional lived experiences in all D&I training and conversations is crucial when driving inclusion and emphasising its complexity and the importance of having a focus on individual needs.
Research by McKinsey last year found that, whilst women’s representation has increased across the pipeline since 2016, women of colour are still significantly under-represented in leadership. The research also showed that although more than three-quarters of white employees consider themselves allies to women of colour at work, less than half take basic allyship actions, such as speaking out against bias or advocating for new opportunities for women of colour. Organisational targets or training that focus on a single ‘identity strand’ – for example, increasing women in leadership – can leave those who fall between minority groups behind. This goes to show the importance of taking as broad a lens as possible when considering diversity, having some of those tough conversations and focussing on inclusion and allyship as well as diversity targets.
When forming D&I training plans, ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Is it to help us reach that target of diverse representation in leadership or to drive inclusivity more generally? If it’s the former, then it’s important to recognise that having equal representation of historically under-represented groups within organisations can only succeed in creating a fairer, more inclusive society when it is part of a much broader movement championing social change. This means going much deeper than just numbers – it means thinking about culture, procurement, supply chains and corporate social responsibility.
If you’re starting to think that the work seems never ending, then that’s exactly the point. We have a long way to go to create workplace equality because we have a long way to go as a society – and those two things need to go hand in hand.
Alice MacDonald is a consultant at worldwide diversity and inclusion training consultancy PDT Global, part of Affirmity