Build bridges not walls, inclusion over diversity

Blog posts

3 Feb 2017

Duncan BrownDr Duncan Brown, Head of HR Consultancy

I went on my first ever protest demonstration last month. The day itself was in stark contrast to what we were demonstrating about: the inauguration of President Trump, depicted by one observer as ‘the crowd was small, the weather bad and the speech, that described “American carnage”, was dire’. I felt welcomed and inspired by the mass demonstration of an estimated two million of the global sisterhood, including some 80,000 in the London sunshine, from babies in pushchairs to Greenham Common veterans aided by sticks, asserting, as one of the pink placards put it, that ‘PUSSIES BITE BACK’.

But the march also set me thinking about our work at IES in the area of diversity and inclusion, and what these two terms mean. The ‘inclusion’ nomenclature seems to be commonly getting affixed to diversity managers’ titles at the moment. But, aside from an assertion of bigger size/status/pay, does it actually mean anything, or is it just another faddish HR title, the proverbial ‘old wine in new bottles’? Whilst I was learning about their great HR work at L’Oreal UK and Ireland, HR director Paul Gilliam and reward and operations director Ben Marks told me how, in an action-oriented and individual culture, they had found far greater progress possible from an approach and perspective that emphasised inclusion.

Few would dispute the fact that we still have massive progress to make in building a truly equal and non-discriminatory society and employing organisations. For example, we recently had the revelation of the shocking levels of discrimination against pregnant women found in research commissioned by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, which had the Parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) calling for new protective legislation.

A report published by the WEC itself in the week after Trump’s inauguration, recommended that a new legal framework was required, with general standards of presentation still morphing shockingly often into orders for high heels and short skirts. They recommended a publicity campaign to ensure employers were aware of their legal obligation not to discriminate, and suggested that businesses guilty of discrimination through their dress code should be obliged to compensate employees. Where were the HR/diversity professionals, one might ask?

A range of research studies would certainly support what we at IES suspect: that many common diversity initiatives and programmes aren’t working. For example, research amongst hundreds of organisations by Frank Dobbin and Alexander Khalev and by Iris Bohnet found a lack of widespread progress in significantly increasing minority ethnic and female representation at senior levels, using programmes such as unconscious-bias training and grievance procedures.

Huber and O’Rourke writing in the McKinsey Quarterly describe progress as ‘a crawl’ and urge far greater urgency and more comprehensive action from the boardroom down.

Bohnet’s response is what she terms diversity ‘by design’. Attitudes are tough to change so we have to force diversity on our organisations, with mandatory mixed selection panels, blind interviewing and so on. She may be right, but the risk is that we get a ‘backlash’ response in our organisations similar to the anti-migrant feeling that fuelled Trump’s victory and the majority Brexit vote.

Dobbin’s response seems much more inclusive to me. As he and Khalev explain:  

‘When people divide into categories to illustrate the idea of diversity, it reinforces the idea of the categories, which, if you think about it, is the essential problem of prejudice in the first place. People aren’t prejudiced against real people; they’re prejudiced against categories’.

Their research found that the programmes with the most impact involved and encouraged, rather than threatened, managers, thereby sparking their engagement. They also promoted contact between multiple groups, for example, on diversity and inclusion teams, in college recruitment exercises, voluntary training workshops and on selection panels. And yes, encouragement from diversity and inclusion specialists helped too.

It is the sort of socially and emotionally intelligent, flexible approach that Huber and O’Rouke  recommend in the McKinsey report and that has underpinned the success of Lewisham Council in achieving both gender parity at senior levels plus what is amusingly known as a ‘negative pay gap’ (ie women earn more than men), as described in a recent IES study. Yes, equality and female representation were strongly prioritised, driven from the top by the chief executive and the mayor, with far from intermittent or token diversity training courses. And yes, it was underpinned by good data, informing everything from senior selection panels to public council meetings.

But this was no Trumpian ‘short sharp shock’ approach to diversity. It has involved sustained application of a wide range of policy initiatives over many years in a pragmatic fashion, making progress when and where possible and with a high degree of support across the Council, rather than being an ideological enforcement by a vanguard of diversity police. Core to Lewisham’s success is promoting talent from within, a highly inclusive approach to talent management and development (also emphasised in the aforementioned McKinsey Quarterly article), which has led to an unusually large number of senior staff having started there at junior levels. This has bridged both ends of the commonest cause of gender pay gaps in the UK: a workforce distribution with many low-paid, low-skilled jobs mostly held by females at the base of the organisation, and overwhelmingly male incumbents of higher-paid, senior roles at the top.

Although perhaps unsurprisingly a bit more engineered in their approach, Natalie Greenwell from Network Rail recently told our Annual HR Provocation meeting about the company’s detailed and extensive diversity and inclusion strategy. Network Rail regards it as a critical business priority in order to recruit the technical and engineering talent they need in the future. With a strong focus on internal training and development, a wide-ranging communications and culture-change exercise involving line managers has seen the female proportion of engineers increase to 16 per cent, more than twice the national average, while the BAME proportion of graduate offers last year increased to 31 per cent, almost three times the proportion of the current workforce.

As I cycled to work the Monday after our peaceful protest, a pink banner remained on Westminster Bridge, announcing ‘Build Bridges not Walls’. For all the employment law and regulations, reputational risk, cost constraints and inertia hemming us in, let’s dare to dream in HR, of becoming fully inclusive employers. And let’s work even harder and more inclusively to deliver it.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.