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Diversity in workplaces: Are we asking the right questions?

With Women's Day just around the corner, it feels like the right time to ask – are we evaluating diversity against the correct parameters? 

I was once planning women in tech campaign, the objective of which was to hire more women for our engineering function. And while we prepared for the launch, I was asked by a senior leader to advertise only the job openings for testing and scrum master roles because "that is what most women do in technology." With stereotyping like that, even if the engineering function ended up with 50% diversity, it meant nothing in actually "being" an inclusive workplace. 

Some argue that we need to start somewhere. So, putting an overall target number is a logical start. Right? Wrong! 

McKinsey's report on Delivering through diversity (2018) shows that the relationship between diversity in executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time. These findings encompass 15 countries and more than 1000 large companies.

However, starting the diversity conversation with a target number runs the risk of focusing only on the number, and the actual business story behind that number is lost. It also dilutes the objective, with questions around lowering the bar, and quota hiring, coming into play. The (in)famous term "diversity hire" results from that mindset. 

While data supports the business case for diversity, its adoption across organizations can only happen when this data comes alive in workplaces.

I have had an opportunity to be part of the management committee in our housing society. In the four years since its inception, our committee was the first to have equal gender representation. It was a group of 16 people who carried out the role voluntarily, without any financial gains. Ours was also the only group where all members completed their tenure without quitting in between due to differences of opinion, brought in a lot more creative initiatives, and led most maturely and peacefully.

Looking back, here are the points that made it work for us:

Leveraging competencies: One of our committee members had grown up in a joint family and was very familiar with the dynamics of multiple stakeholders, power dynamics, etc. With that skill, he contributed significantly towards managing and resolving conflict. Another member, who grew up on a farm, could bring in sustainability initiatives she had seen in the past. These competencies were not a result of their gender. It resulted from their life experiences and how they learned and developed these over the years.

To improve diversity in our team, let us talk about the competencies instead of numbers – what already exists and what we need to hire for. Let us hire for competency, but don't look for it only in professional experience. We learn in our workplaces and beyond, so let's acknowledge that.

Creating a safe space: During our tenure as a managing committee, we have had many heated discussions, but the commitment was to solve the problem and not attack the person. Sometimes things got personal, but few of us volunteered to mediate and never pushed these incidents under the carpet. We wanted everyone to bring their authentic self and act whenever people felt unsafe or unheard.

The next time we talk about our diversity ratio at the leadership level, let's ask ourselves – Women have a seat at the table, but do they have a voice there? If the answer is yes, then ask again – Women have a voice at the table, but are they being heard, or are they being penalized for using their voice?

No gender-defined roles: In the committee, we did not look at positions through a gender lens and treated all jobs equally. For example, women did not restrict themselves to the cultural committee, and men did not shy away from planning a cultural program. From the start, it was a play of equals.

Stop stereotyping. Period. And for those who argue – "but there aren't so many women in the industry to hire from," here is something – Yes, you are right. Women are underrepresented in various roles and will continue to remain so unless we act. Are we building the capabilities of the women already in our organization and providing them with a safe space to deliver and grow? 

And while we continue to move the needle, let us not forget the numbers! But the numbers that we need to speak more about are:

  • What is the difference in diversity numbers at entry level vs. mid-level in our organization?
    Analyze the reasons for it. And see how our processes can support women to stay. Then, work towards reducing the leakage.
  • How many women have left within one year of moving into the leadership role? 
    Dig deeper into that "better opportunity" reason on the exit form. Then, work towards creating that safe space. 

Let us change the narrative. Instead of discussing how we have improved diversity, let us start the story with what we have gained from it. Then, make that story alive for employees because only then will we see the human behind that number.


Delivering growth through diversity in the workplace | McKinsey
How diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) matter | McKinsey


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