Do large organisations face a tougher D&I challenge?

By Rebecca Salsbury

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What does it mean to “tackle” Diversity and Inclusion in your organisation or team? And why does it seem so hard sometimes? To name just a few of the tricky areas: overcoming deeply held beliefs and unconscious biases, changing behaviours, facing up to embarrassment, or even shame, when discovering how past actions have impacted others. Organisations of all sizes and shapes face the same challenges.

In my experience, leaders (and employees) in large, established companies believe their challenges are on a different scale. Their size, and the characteristics associated with their size, explain slow progress embracing D&I and making change stick.

Of course there are factors which complicate implementation: large workforces, large management teams, unwieldy decision-making processes, spread across multiple regions or geographies, or policies written at another time and with different goals in mind. Some companies have a legacy of systems which makes data collection and analysis non-trivial. Others have a legacy of cultural norms, expectations, and behaviours which mean getting a ‘toe hold’ in the mountain of change is, indeed, difficult.

I’m generalising, and we all know that this leads to dangerous assumptions! These observations are grounded in my experience, however. Until recently I held a leadership position in the BBC’s technology division. I have personally uttered some of these very factors to explain – or excuse – my own/our department’s progress in relation to tackling diversity in particular. I’ve been both an active and passive contributor to some of the most common mistakes (large) organisations make when they set out to ‘improve diversity.’ Hindsight, and continued learning, mean I can now see different ways through.

As an example: it took me many years to either accept responsibility for being a role model and champion of change, or understand the positive impact that role models can have on changing behaviour. I was an experienced, senior female leader in technology, but at that time, it was important to me to ‘fit in’ and not to be thought of as ‘different.’ I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, or ‘ruffle feathers’ of my peers and managers (almost entirely men). I didn’t want to risk detracting from my professional credentials. Sound familiar? If I was thinking that way, imagine how those attitudes and (very real) fears could impact other decisions and actions I was taking as a leader. Extrapolate this to a department, or division, or whole organisation – and the mountain looms large.

Other false summits appeared on that mountain: unconscious bias training didn’t have the impact I hoped for, well-intended targets were mathematically impossible to achieve, data was misinterpreted or incomplete, and our focus was too much on diversity without improving inclusivity. My D&I education in recent years has shown me that I didn’t fully appreciate the (business) case for change, and hadn’t invested sufficiently in developing the motivations to change – to climb that mountain. All organisations – of any size – can make progress and be successful if they discover real motivators, and are honest about the challenges they’ll face along the way.

P.S. – Read the BBC’s new Diversity & Inclusion plan. I’m rooting from the outside now!

Rebecca Salsbury is one of our D&I consultants, specialising in Inclusive Leadership. She has built and led teams in the media and digital technology sectors.

If you’re ready to take stock of your D&I strategy and the impact it’s having, or restate the business case for your organisation, Voice At The Table can help: please get in touch!