It says something about the distance we’ve come that the starting point for conversations about workplace diversity and inclusion (D&I) is no longer whether it’s important or not. It’s now a given that D&I is not only a worthy goal in and of itself, it offers a competitive advantage.

It also says something about the distance we still need to travel. Organisations are pouring money and effort into D&I initiatives but it’s not translating into more diverse workplaces. The benefits that are so tantalisingly on offer are not being realised. The Diversity Council Australia found that only 25 percent of D&I initiatives are often or always effective. In relation to gender diversity in South East Asia, Boston Consulting Group found that less than half of the women in their study believed their employer was doing a lot to improve gender diversity and less than a third felt they had benefited from such measures.

When there’s so much money, effort and goodwill going into D&I initiatives, why aren’t they working? We believe the singular focus on unconscious bias training has become a workplace red herring – it’s undoubtedly important, but by itself, it’s not enough. Organisations need to combine behavioural change with structural change to really shift the dial on diversity and inclusion.

We believe the singular focus on unconscious bias training has become a workplace red herring. Click To Tweet

Why aren’t D&I efforts working?

There are certainly some bright spots out there, like Singaporean online-shopping platform Shopee and Australian health insurer Medibank. Shopee has taken an expansive view of diversity, folding in ethnicity, gender, and disability, alongside things such as generation, personality type, and life experiences, while inclusion efforts aim to not simply accommodate these variables but embrace them through their policies and workplace environment. One example of the work Medibank has put into D&I is their progressive approach to LGBTI inclusion, creating space for employee-led community building initiatives and rewriting policies to expressly include LGBTI interests.

Too many organisations aren’t making it this far. They’re stopping at what we call behavioural inclusion, which is about the personal transformation of leaders and employees by enabling individuals to recognise, counter and mitigate unconscious bias. However, with this approach existing structures continue on, riddled with in-built biases, thwarting the behavioural efforts of individuals.

Changing behaviour is essential, but behavioural inclusion without structural inclusion won’t change the status quo. The glass ceilings will remain firmly in place.

The three pillars of structural inclusion: equality, equity, and inclusive design

Effective structural inclusion will never be achieved through a piecemeal approach. It requires an organisation-wide effort, based on three separate but interrelated principles: equality, equity and inclusive design.

Equality is about ensuring fairness for everyone. It ensures that the workplace meritocracy can flourish; it’s a promise that no one is to be favoured or treated unfairly because of who they are. It sounds simple enough, but we’ve come to understand how unconscious biases can be built into seemingly ‘equal’ policies and procedures.

Take the tech management consulting firm that, despite hiring equal numbers of men and women at graduate level, found they were losing far more women than men after five to seven years. Their initial hypothesis that high work intensity was to blame (and could therefore be fixed through improved work-life balance) was quickly disproven. The women hired were just as ambitious as the men; they were leaving because of poor people management.

Equality is about ensuring fairness for everyone and ensuring that the workplace meritocracy flourishes. Click To Tweet

A closer analysis of the firm’s talent processes found that technical excellence was rewarded with promotions – which led to people management. Many promoted into these positions didn’t relish their people responsibilities, nor were they trained for them. Poor managers are poor managers, but the effects were felt by women disproportionately. In the absence of training and support, leaders fell into managing ‘the way it’s always been done’ perpetuating the white, male boys’ club that predominates in the tech industry. No wonder women were leaving in greater numbers.

By addressing the inherent structural inequality through enhancing their manager selection process, onboarding, and adjusting development and rewards, augmented by behavioural training in unconscious bias and conscious inclusion, the firm improved the working environment for everyone.

Equity is about righting past wrongs. Accepting that structural inequality exists means accepting that the playing field has not been level for all in the past. It means accepting that people from certain backgrounds will have received unearned advantages or disadvantages that perpetuate inequities in access, rewards, opportunity, and support.

Equity is about making this right. It requires practical action to address how these advantages have been experienced by people including through inequitable pay and people promotion processes.

Inclusive design brings these two principles together. It’s about ensuring all processes and procedures are equal today and protect against inequities tomorrow. Take, for example, the evolution of maternity leave – which initially applied only to birth mothers. To this was added paternity leave – which typically applied to biological fathers. Now, progressive organisations like Spotify, Microsoft and IKEA offer parental leave, which is neutral with regard to gender, sexual orientation, and child arrival method.

Inclusive organisations will only be achieved when behavioural change is supported by structural change. We discuss this in more detail in our paper Asleep at the Wheel.

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About the contributor

Juliet is a leadership consultant and executive coach with an extensive business management background. She has successfully partnered with organisations to develop high impact leadership development solutions aligned with the organisations strategic needs. Juliet has extensive experience working with leaders in APAC region and has partnered with senior leaders and emerging high potential talent as a executive coach in a number of industries. She has particular insight in regards to women in leadership, having worked on several customized professional development programs for women since 2005 and coached many senior women on their unique career challenges.

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