Employee Networks and Inclusion

In a recent bid to make the workplace ‘more inclusive’, Deloitte decided to scrap their employee diversity networks. The company thinks that employee affinity groups (internal networks based around gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so on) are passé and has decided to replace them with ‘inclusion councils’, which shall be open to all. The idea is to include more white men in the diversity and inclusion debate.

While I agree with Deloitte in terms of including more people with privilege (white men for example) in the equality debate, I do believe that employee networks have given employees (from not-so-privileged backgrounds) a collective voice and an opportunity to connect with people who are from similar backgrounds and who have had similar discriminatory experiences in their career journey. I also agree that it is imperative for white men to become advocates for equality and this debate has been ongoing for decades now. But before simply deconstructing employee circles and reversing the approach, are we doing enough?

Professor Michael Kimmel argues that ‘privilege is invisible to those who have it’. For example, while it is a great idea to include men in the gender equality debate, in my personal view it is imperative to first help them understand how gender differences play out in the workplace and sensitise them about overlooked biases they may not be aware of. Kimmel argues that men need to understand and believe the business case for equality (gender and otherwise) and that companies that are more gender equal have a high return on investment rate, better profitability, lower employee costs, lower turnover rates, higher job satisfaction and lower levels of employee absenteeism. This can be done by helping them understand how gender equality would benefit them at an individual level and by encouraging men to engage in the private sphere by way of a flexible policy framework. Research demonstrates that when men share care work and participate in childcare, their children tend to perform better at school, they have higher rates of achievement and lower school absenteeism. It also has positive effects on the mental and physical health of their respective spouses. If men are gender equal in the private sphere, it is likely that they will be gender inclusive in the workplace too.

Workplace affinity networks have in the past had myriad positive effects for participating members. Employee networks play a pivotal role in keeping employees motivated and engaged at the workplace by providing a sense of inclusion. Moreover, such groups provide a collective voice to minorities who otherwise may be marginalised. Workplace networks should be viewed as platforms for rewarding and celebrating diversity and not be seen as reverse bias. Workplaces should embrace people for what they are and ensure there is a level playing field. In order to achieve this, it is important for the dominant ‘out-group’ to be aware of their privileges and to be integrated in the larger debate. How men and women perceive gender roles also influences their personal beliefs towards equality. It is time to generate awareness and deconstruct the traditional male breadwinner model and make way for a dual earner/dual carer society where each person has the freedom to decide their own role.

I do believe that the absence of men in the diversity debate is concerning and that it is imperative for men (and women in positions of privilege) to be allies in the process of eliminating inequalities. However, as a starting point, before completely doing away with employee networks, perhaps we should make men and those in positions of privilege aware of differences (gender and otherwise) via sensitisation programmes and demonstrate to them how equality will benefit them in their personal lives and thereby help in workplace productivity and engagement too. This will likely help them demonstrate an egalitarian attitude at the workplace and thereby ready them to participate in the fight for equality. And once men are truly a part of the equality debate (with full intent and awareness), the battle against inequality will cease to exist.