So much has been disrupted and so little has shifted. This is the paradox that leaders need to understand in the wake of COVID-19 and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. Much of the world has awoken to the need for change – but impacting issues on a systems level requires more than awareness.
In the new remote landscape of work, it is easier than ever for people to feel disconnected. But there is also an opportunity to confront the unseen barriers that existed long before we were placed at a physical distance from one another.
As we step back from the aftermath of 2020 we ask: Have the questions surrounding diversity and inclusion altered at all? What potential is in the present moment? And how can we engage with our own role in ushering in a better future?
To explore these questions we invited two of our own leaders to a panel discussion: TPCL’s associate partner Hilary Harvey (UK) and managing partner Tom Van Dyck (Belgium), who drew from their own expertise of working with leaders and organisations through the disruption of the last year.
Diversity is now a global conversation
Diversity is no longer a topic that society can ignore. It became a talking point in 2020 in a way that hasn’t happened before. Hilary, who has been asked to do more diversity and inclusion work than ever this year – particularly within the public sector – believes that organisations have been compelled to respond.
“Now, it’s a global conversation,” Hilary says. “We’re all being forced to have an opinion and a perspective. Everyone needs to decide how they will relate to the topic of diversity.”
While it was once possible to ignore, sideline or keep within the HR department, the diversity conversation has now burst its banks. And it’s not only talk, there’s more scrutiny too.
“It’s not enough to say we support Black Lives Matter or that we champion women,” says Hilary. “What else are you doing? What’s changed in your system? If anything has changed in 2020, it’s that consumers are more likely to hold businesses, organisations and movements to account for their longer-term behaviours.”
So there are new rules of engagement that businesses need to play by, whether they are aware of them or not. But this doesn’t mean any kind of end is in sight for issues of diversity. In many respects we are still to get off the starting line, perhaps even going in reverse.
Inclusion in a time of scarcity and survival
Awareness may have risen in 2020 but so has the shortfall. And ethnic minorities have felt the impact of COVID-19 harder than white people across the board, both in the UK and France and from Norway to the US.
Meanwhile the financial impacts of COVID 19 are due to most severely affect women and girls. UN Women report that the virus has put women’s employment 19% more at risk than men’s employment. The loss of care arrangements and the intensification of domestic work, not to mention domestic violence, means that women are facing more obstacles than ever to their health, wellbeing and working life.
“The inequalities that always existed have been exacerbated by COVID-19,” says Hilary. “In a crisis, people get really protective over resources. So anyone less franchised has even scarcer access to them than before.”
From a business perspective, learning development budgets have shrunk as resources have become tighter. The prerogative to develop people has been partially or completely swallowed by the need to simply keep going. And this means women, BAME groups and the disabled have fewer opportunities than ever to disrupt the lack of diversity in leadership and board positions.
“On a humanitarian level, we’ve switched from inclusion to survival,” says Hilary. “Businesses are saying, ‘We need to invest in addressing the inequalities that have been highlighted,’ and on the other hand they might still believe, ‘We need to protect and not spend money.’ It’s a real dichotomy.”
Remote working is forcing inclusion’s hand
While the economical landscape is compounding issues of diversity, the pivot to remote working is beginning to highlight the challenges of inclusion to leaders. This has been particularly apparent to Tom, whose clients report that the people they lead are feeling isolated. Suddenly – maybe for the first time – everybody feels excluded.
“Because of remote working, there is a certain need to include everyone, no matter what skin colour, origin, education or background,” says Tom. “It’s giving a totally new twist to the conversation of diversity and inclusion.”
When every person in the organisation is feeling the discomfort of distance, leaders need to place inclusion far higher up the agenda than before. The challenges of the current environment are affecting everyone and, we can hope, the inclusion solutions will affect everyone too.
Diversity today supports diversity tomorrow
Inclusion though, does not equal diversity. For our efforts to include the people in our remote working context will only affect the people who are already there. The legacy of inclusion we leave post-COVID-19 will only be as powerful as the diversity that goes with it.
“The statistics show that there aren’t enough people in the room,” says Hilary. “You’ve got to have a diverse pool to draw from first. Then you can include diverse groups in greater numbers.”
Organisations can’t achieve this only by addressing active exclusion. The issue is a systems problem, one that is reinforced by our unconscious biases. Policies of inclusion will take us some of the way there but we also need to confront the underlying factors at play.
Once organisations achieve a greater diversity in leadership, the impacts filter down. Emerging leaders in an organisation will be able to see senior leaders who they can relate to and who share common experiences with them. When there is diversity in positions of power, it psychologically affects people’s expectations, opening up the possibility that they could operate in that space too.
“There’s a massive importance to role models,” says Tom. “If you look at what happened when Kamala Harris gave a speech after becoming vice-president-elect, she’s well aware of the fact that she’s a role model for many women of color in the US. She’s creating possibility for those who didn’t have their roots in the US generations ago.”
The global opportunity of the moment
The access we have to follow almost anyone on social media these days means we don’t need to search so long to find role models either. When our immediate environment lacks diversity, we can look for it online.
“When I was growing up, you either saw people on TV, or in real life,” says Hilary. “Now everything has changed. You can go on Instagram, find someone and almost become part of that tribe with a peer network of supporters.”
And this level of access that technology has given us is not limited to personal use. There is an unprecedented opportunity for organisations to bring in different kinds of people into a room. While we were once limited by the costs and hassle of travel or relocation, now we are operating on a virtual plane. This is something TPCL has always embraced.
“When I work with a global client who wants us to match their level of diversity, we can bring people in from anywhere,” says Tom. “We can bring faculty, coaches and trainers from the UK and South Africa, Thailand and Brazil, North America and Japan. This enables us to deliver diverse work and help make it the norm.”
Looking ahead to the tipping point
So what does the future hold for diversity and inclusion? If we confront our unconscious biases, populate our organisations with diverse groups, and bring diverse role models in from across the globe. When will we know we have made a difference?
“You need to reach a threshold level of normalisation,” says Tom. “When a woman becomes CEO of one of the biggest companies in the country and it is no longer unusual. When you don’t need to mention the fact that she’s a woman, she’s just the CEO.”
This normalisation of diversity still seems to be a long way off for much of the world. The inequality gap is just too high. But there are instances where we can see the first traces of this.
“You can say a lot of things about Belgium politics,” says Tom, “but more than ten years ago, we had a gay prime minister. And in this recently appointed government we have a transgender minister. And no one is pointing it out. She’s super capable in her field and that’s the only thing that matters.”
Nudging ourselves towards tomorrow
Of course, there’s no guarantee that such a future will occur. It is up to the leaders of today to own their part in shifting systems that have so far prevented that future from occurring.
“One thing I started doing for myself is to change the order in which I use pronouns,” says Tom. “Because I don’t want ‘she’ to be a politically correct addendum. So now instead of saying, ‘he or she,’ I say ‘she or he.’ It’s a little thing but it helps normalise the idea that, whatever the context, I might as well be speaking about a woman as a man.”
“I call this a small little nudge. Sometimes other people will hear me and pick it up themselves. Other times they won’t. But I just hope that one phrase at a time it might subconsciously make a little difference.”
If we look at the current landscape of diversity and inclusion in organisations, it is easy to get overwhelmed. But paralysis is not an option for leaders if they want to create a better future. When we ask what is in our hands to change, we can begin moving in the right direction. 2020 disrupted our plans, our thinking and our norms. Now it is up to us to usher in tomorrow’s new normal.
In part two of this discussion featuring Hilary Harvey and Tom Van Dyck, we explore the theme of collaboration and why our humanity might be the key to its success. Keep an eye out on our social channels or sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date with the latest insights from TPCL’s leadership experts.
@copyright TPCL (2020)