Diversity & Inclusion; Discussions with AWS

There’s no denying ‘diversity and inclusion’ is a phrase increasingly found in the dialogue surrounding business and the world of work. But when we live in a time where there are more men called ‘David’ and ‘Steve’ leading FTSE 100 companies than women and ethnic minorities, words are not enough.

The challenges around D&I are being highlighted in part, thanks to organisations like Amazon Web Services who are bringing them front and centre. AWS have recognised the benefits of diversity and inclusion in their own organisation and have dedicated an arm of their operation to encouraging other businesses to make inclusion central to their own mission and values.

As a tech start-up at the beginning of our journey, we were invited along to the ‘Breaking Glass Ceilings’ event get an idea of the D&I issues facing us societally and what other businesses are doing to address them internally.

Sacha Thompson is the Inclusion Marketing Lead for AWS. She opened the session with a quote from inclusion strategist, Verna Mars. “Diversity is being invited to the party; Inclusion is being asked to dance”. She personally went on to add “Equity is being able to organise the party.”

Prejudice comes in many forms. Racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism and ableism don’t always mean flagrant language hurled in the street or being assaulted in the photocopy room. It’s insidious, presenting in the form of workplace ‘banter’, touching someone’s hair uninvited or thoughtlessly blurting out “If you’re here, who looks after your kids?”.

Microaggressions like the above can chip away at a person in a manner that someone who’s never experienced them could ever understand. If they want to get ahead in a corporate environment, the subject of these barbed comments and curiosities often feel forced to suppress their fatigue and/or annoyance. Whether it’s a case of having to diminish your ‘blackness’ to make others feel comfortable or ‘act like one of the lads’ to secure an invite to the boy’s club, it’s not conducive to a healthy or productive company culture.

That’s where inclusion comes in. Getting people through the door may not always the biggest problem. Many organisations purport to have high levels of BAME representation, but at what level? Only 6% of top manager positions in the UK are held by those from a BME background. Not only are these groups limited by glass ceilings but they’re also contending with sticky floors.

The reasons are many, varied and complex but systemic discrimination and unconscious bias are at the heart of the issue. Studies have shown we often hire people who are just like us, which is why the David’s and the Steves of the world are handed more opportunities than everybody else.

Talent retention is also a key contributor to poor representation of women and minorities in top jobs. People don’t leave job roles, they leave bad managers and uncomfortable working environments. And when they do, they take their knowledge, insight and potential with them. Supporting employees with professional development opportunities is key to advancing people through your organisation, so why are these groups being failed so badly?

It likely has to do with the difference between an organisation’s perception of their D&I efforts, or reality. Many businesses are guilty of replacing affirmative action with buzz words and tick boxes, or cynically harnessing celebration days for their own positive PR. Throwing an International Women’s Day celebration or a Black History Month event can be a good way to initiate a dialogue. But how can you sustain that energy once the day or month has passed?

Instead of celebrating IWD should we be having an honest conversation about sexism? Rather than commemorating BHM, is it time to have a difficult discussion about racism? They are not mutually exclusive. One shouldn’t come at the expense of the other to be ignored for the other 364 days or 11 months of the year.

And those conversations are going to be challenging. If they aren’t, they’re not being done right. Participants shouldn’t be made to feel criticism has to be constructive. To be effective, businesses need to face the ugly truth. Acknowledging the problems are the first steps to facilitating true diversity and all the benefits it can bring.

The role of networks were also discussed with some discord. While they are crucial for creating a safe space to talk, they can run the risk of becoming echo chambers. To garner real value, they have to be inclusive and that means inviting the majority group to the party. The Davids and Steves need to be part of these conversations because currently, they disproportionately have the power and influence to impact positive change. Groups with open-door policies for allies will harness better results than those who don’t.

For some organisations, the task can seem gargantuan and businesses need help in identifying their next steps. Someone with a wealth of experience helping these businesses is the founder of MEA consulting, Anju Solanki. A former Investment Banker, she identified a genuine need for corporate behavioural change.

Here are her top takeaways for improving D&I in your business;

Be authentic: Ensure company culture provides opportunities to have authentic conversations around D&I through taking accountability to drive change. Speak up and use networks to be heard. Invite dominant groups to sponsor minority networks.

-Fight the Sticky floors concept: Ensure you are not hindering diverse colleagues’ growth and development within the confines on their BAU day jobs. Allow them time and space to explore other businesses, roles and areas.

-Get uncomfortable and have uncomfortable conversations: We are all products of our own life experiences and should be aware of our own biases.

-Keep the momentum: For sustainable change we need to keep diversity momentum going. Reward your colleagues and employees for their D&I efforts. Hold yourself accountable. Everyone is responsible for D&I, it’s not a HR strategy.

As Anju says, D&I is everybody’s responsibility. If you are the Davids and the Steves of the world you’re duty bound to help. Not only for the benefit of a fairer more inclusive society, but also the profitability and potential of your business.

If you’re someone who’s smashed those glass ceilings, you’re a role model. Be visible, because if you can see it you can be it! And if you’re struggling to escape those sticky floors, speak up and challenge bias’ if you feel you can. There’s a lot of work to be done, but if we work together, it can and will be done.