Stage 3 of the Diversity Journey Roadmap© is where leaders recognise a lack of Diversity, see that it is a problem for the organisation and want to ‘fix it’. This is a positive step forward from just appearing to be doing something about it, as in the previous ‘Window Dressing’ stage of the journey, but there are also pitfalls in this stage.
It’s not easy to create genuine change, or to be an ally, especially if you don’t know how to go about it without appearing patronising. This is because leaders’ actions can be prone to missteps and misinterpretation if they are taken without a real understanding of how it feels to be excluded, undervalued or misunderstood in your workplace because you are different from those in its dominant group. It is reasonably straightforward to understand that a workplace should allow everyone to thrive and meet their potential, as nicely summarised in this quote from the CIPD:
Leaders setting out to increase inclusion in their workplace are always well-intentioned, but they can inadvertently become ‘knights in shining armour’ without realising that this means they are approaching Diversity from an angle that is difficult to ‘sell’.‘Fixing’ Diversity is a noble aspiration – after all, we all want to do the right thing and work in an environment that is reflective of society at large, in a workplace that is fair and respectful to all. But if this remains the main motivation for diversifying the workplace, it may fail to deliver the desired result. This is because, when it comes down to making business decisions, decision makers will prioritise what they believe is a more important business result to their desire to be inclusive.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Imagine you’re hiring to fill a role on your team. Your team is made up of five men and one woman, and you’re keen to hire another woman to improve the gender split in the team. You’ve instructed HR accordingly and they have provided a roster of capable candidates including men and women. Interviews are progressing well and you’re down to 2 final candidates, both of whom are experienced enough to do the job. One is a man and the other is a woman. The interview panel is instructed to think about the gender balance on your team, but they also observe that the male candidate is an internal candidate who knows a few of the team members already and is better networked with some of the clients. So, although gender balance is an important aspect of the hiring decision, you’re now faced with a male candidate who is marginally better suited to the job than the female candidate. And, while you’re keen to fix the Diversity problem, you don’t want that to be the overarching factor of your hiring decisions, so you go for who you perceive to be the better candidate – the better fit for the team and the job, i.e. the man.
This is not a made up scenario. Leaders and managers struggle with these kinds of choices almost every day. Do we do what we believe will deliver the better business outcome or do we fix our Diversity problem? Inevitably, the business result trumps the need to fix Diversity.
But only because we see Diversity as a problem, not an opportunity. Were the question to be framed differently, e.g. which result will be better for business in the longer term, this would require weighing up two different business opportunities instead of an opportunity on the one hand and a fix to a societal problem on the other. In other words, if you’re out to fix the Diversity problem, chances are you’re not going to do it.
The second problem with fixing the problem
All this is before we even take into account that people of different demographic backgrounds don’t want or need to be ‘fixed’. They are not the ‘damsel in distress’ of fairy tales waiting to be rescued. People from underrepresented backgrounds are just as brilliant, clever and capable – and just as fallible, human and ambitious – as everyone else. They don’t want favours from others; they don’t want a high-handed version of what might be perceived as ‘White Saviourism’ from those in the dominant groups within their workplace; what they want is recognition that they add just as much (if not more) value as others. And they want an equitable opportunity to prove it, to be given a chance to progress and develop, perhaps through taking on a big project to build their experience, to help them be promoted into a leadership role.
Aiming to ‘fix it’ might be a step in the right direction, but it is a step early on the Diversity Journey Roadmap©. Recognising there is a problem to be solved is a good start. What makes it even better is to understand how the business and all its people will benefit from improved Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Once the benefits are clear, it’s easier to get buy-in and bring genuine impact to your workplace’s Diversity strategy.