Last week saw International Woman’s Day shine a light on the inspirational women that lead global organisations, build businesses, and make a huge impact on the world around us.
And, speaking as a man, I hope it encouraged many of us to look at the remarkable women that surround us and consider how their journeys might have been just that little (or in some cases, a lot) harder because of their gender.
Unfortunately, the reality in the workplace is not so positive. Equality in the workplace is slowing, but it’s not just those that identify as diverse that are finding themselves disenfranchised by their firms’ equality mission.
The “If you are a straight white guy, you are disadvantaged” mindset
“I’m applying for other jobs, I can’t get promoted here because I’m a guy — they are only promoting women”
“She got that role because she ticks a few diversity boxes”
“The most discriminated against people in this business are straight white men”
These are all direct quotes that I have heard in the last few weeks alone. For me, the scariest thing about them isn’t their obvious small-mindedness. It’s that all of these were said to me by young people, under the age of 30.
Many of us associate discrimination with older generations, we are optimistic that the inequalities that we see all around us will change as millennials progress up the ladder.
But this kind of sentiment from the under 30s is dangerous, and we mustn’t just roll our eyes or engage in an argument with them.
These attitudes highlight a huge problem in most firm’s equality agendas, they don’t talk to about equality enough to the people that need to hear about it the most.
This is bad for equality, bad for all workers, and bad for business.
The forgotten group
In most large organisations, new employees will go through a standard dry induction process. They’ll learn about the structure of the business, be indoctrinated into its vision for the future, and hear about how “great” their equality and diversity programme is.
This equality and diversity pitch has become a standard for most new employees but rarely goes further than self-promotion, and pointing them in the direction of the organisations many “diversity networks”.
For those who do not identify with, or want to join a diversity network, this is sometimes the end of their exposure to equality in the company. Most organisations will require you to complete a form of “equality e-learning”, which every piece of research tells us is a plaster (band-aid for American readers) on a very serious flesh wound. Very few pay attention and the ones that do forget the content by the end of the week.
This system leaves us with an organisation of people who join diversity networks and continue to engage with equality and diversity issues, and a (usually) larger group that doesn’t, and are no longer exposed to the issue at all for the majority of their career.
How are organisations ever going to effectively tackle their equality problems, when a large proportion of their workforce isn’t hearing about them at all?
And without hearing about the real problems that they face, is it any wonder that some workers; seeing the mentoring, business coaching, diversity events and boardroom quoters available to some of their peers feel at a disadvantage?
Businesses need to start engaging with this group, the group that are far less likely to go to diversity events, far less likely to understand the problems faced by their colleagues, far less likely to hear horror stories, and far more likely (probably unknowingly) to be displaying and promoting behaviours that make the company a less equal place.
There is a lot to do, start with these 3 things:
1. Actively seek out your problem
Unfortunately, a key driver for the comments I quoted earlier, is that many people don’t believe that there is a diversity problem in their workplace.
All this stuff happens elsewhere — not in this office!
And it’s easy to understand why leaders can fall into this mindset. They have probably all signed up to a commitment to equality in the world place, they have funded some equality initiatives, created a mandatory e-learning course, and set up a range of diversity networks. What more is there to do?!
To make a real change, organisations need to hold up a mirror and look at the full ugliness in front of them. Look deep into their promotion and recruitment practices, their business processes, their real culture (not the aspirational one in their recruitment materials), and the informal networks across their organisation (also known as cliques).
This isn’t easy for a business, whose whole purpose is to promote itself positively. And it’s not easy for leaders, who are already working every hour under the sun to meet their other responsibilities.
But without understanding your problem, and understanding your burning platform, you will never authentically make an effort to change.
2. Talk about your problem
Businesses need to start talking about equality more, but more importantly, they need to change how they talk about it.
Remember our new employee, starting their exciting new career at a huge global firm. During their induction, they were told how great their new employer’s equality and diversity policy was and all of their great equality agendas.
I have worked with some of the best large organisations in this field, who are leading the charge with equality and diversity, and I don’t think any of them would honestly say they were great at it.
And that’s fine! It’s fine that companies are on journeys to be the best they can be, but they need to be honest with their people about that. Tell them that they care about equality and diversity, but tell them that they aren’t there yet — and that they will need their help to get there.
But once an organisation has held up that mirror and seen its ugly self, it needs to share that ugliness with all of its people.
Speaking openly about the problems in your business and how you are acting to solve them, isn't only the right thing to do, but it ensures that all of your people understand why bold equality initiatives are so important to them.
Communicating the ugly, real problems that your business is facing is hard. But it will wake everyone up, and greatly benefit your equality agenda.
3. Don’t forget that your goal is amazing!
Building an equal opportunities workforce is such a fantastic thing!
It’s so easy for organisations to get bogged down in the processes, the policies, the reporting, the “what not to do” — that they forget to stand on the rooftop and shout about this inspiring message!
Building an equal opportunities organisation, where no one gets left behind and everyone feels at home is exciting, it’s a super positive message, it adds to the purpose of your organisation, it’s the right thing to do. Shout about it!!
These three things won’t solve your organisation’s equality problem. There are many other levers that need to be pulled, things that need to change, and actions that need to be taken.
But organisations are getting lazy, it’s affecting all workers, and a real solution has to start with getting out that mirror, looking at your problems and, then bringing everyone along for an exciting ride to a more equal workplace.