Publicly setting targets to drive diverse representation can send a powerful message about a company’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). With set goals, leaders can be held accountable, and the transparency is often appreciated by employees. But what happens when an organization reaches its goal of, say, 50% women in leadership? What happens when there is diverse representation across leadership roles? Does it mean they’ve crossed the proverbial DEI finish line?
If DEI training is based solely on reaching diversity targets, is commitment to inclusion truly authentic? Having a focus on diverse representation without working to actively disrupt the systems that caused that inequality to occur in the first place is only doing half the work. But the issue is that the other half of the work can be uncomfortable and cause defensiveness, especially in the (virtual or in person) training room. We need to start having difficult conversations about the racism, transphobia, sexism and ableism (to name but a few issues) that can exist in traditional ideas of professionalism and what “good” performance looks like.
When creating a training approach, it can be tempting to have the easy conversations, and opt out of the difficult ones, but change truly happens when we are pushed out of our comfort zones. Therefore, we need to start having some of these difficult conversations in a safe space during training sessions.
DEI Is a Journey, Not a Destination
The truth is that any form of diverse representation, even at leadership level, should not be the goal of DEI training efforts. Just because you have representation of people of color at a leadership level does not mean that racism no longer exists within your organization. If your chief executive officer identifies as LGBTQ+, it does not mean that your policies and culture aren’t embodying damaging cisnormativity and heteronormativity. If an organization’s commitment to inclusion is authentic, then diverse representation should be an important stepping-stone, but not a final goal. It can be incredibly tempting to give yourself a “gold star” if you have achieved diverse representation in a particular area of your business, but this can operate as a shiny façade which prevents you considering whether or not inequality exists in your workplace.
This is not to say that diverse representation in leadership is not important – looking to the senior ranks of an organization and seeing someone who reflects their identity can inspire people to think “they’ve done it, so I can do it too.” But you should not mark your organization’s DEI journey as being “over” just because there is representation of people from historically excluded groups in positions of power within your company. In fact, if it’s the case that we look to senior leadership and think “That’s great, there’s diverse representation,” that is a sign that we still have work to do. If we are operating in a space where some people are elevated, while the majority of people are still struggling, this is not equality.
All of this does not even begin to consider intersectionality – the shadow lurking in the corner of all conversations around diversity data in the workplace. You may have thriving LGBTQ+ representation and your LGBTQ+ network may be doing great things. But have you got good representation of queer women? What about LGBTQ+ people of color? While diversity targets are important, when we focus on them it is easy to forget about the complexity of identity. And identity is so incredibly multifaceted in a way that targets just cannot account for. Including intersectional lived experiences in all D&I training and conversations is crucial when driving inclusion and emphasizing its complexity and the importance of having a focus on individual needs.
Research by McKinsey in 2021 found that, although women’s representation has increased across the pipeline since 2016, women of color are still significantly underrepresented in leadership. The research also showed that, although more than three-quarters of white employees consider themselves allies to women of color at work, less than half take basic allyship actions, such as speaking out against bias or advocating for new opportunities for women of color. Organizational targets or training that focus on a single “identity strand,” for example increasing women in leadership, can leave those who fall between minority groups behind.
Thus, it’s vital that learning leaders take as broad a lens as possible when considering DEI, which means having those tough conversations and focusing on inclusion and allyship, as well as diversity targets.
When forming DEI training, ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Is it to help us reach that target of diverse representation in leadership or to drive inclusivity more generally? If it is the former, then it is important to recognize that having equal representation of historically underrepresented groups within organizations can only succeed in creating a fairer, more inclusive society when it is part of a much broader movement championing social change. This means going much deeper than just numbers – it means thinking about culture, procurement, supply chains and corporate social responsibility.
If you are starting to think that the work seems never-ending, then that is exactly the point: We have a long way to go to create workplace equality because we have a long way to go as a society, and those two things need to go hand in hand.