Action trumps pledges in fight against workplace inequality
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“People have called this a reckoning; people have called this an awakening,” says Cindy Pace, speaking of the outpouring of commitments in the wake of the murder of George Floyd last year.
For Pace — who is vice-president and global chief diversity and inclusion officer at the US insurer MetLife, and brings a research-informed approach to her role — what stood out were the pledges. “The pledging wasn’t just about words: ‘I pledge to do X, Y and Z’. There were pledges focused on mitigating racial inequity that I had not seen before.”
CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, a leader-driven pledge, now has more than 2,000 signatories. All of them have made or renewed commitments to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace through a wide breadth of actions, such as expanding employee resource groups, holding seminars on microaggressions and giving training on unconscious bias.
“In the past year, people focused on conversations: let’s talk about race, let’s talk about equity,” says Pace. But while she agrees that it is important to have a work culture where differences are addressed with candour, that is not enough to drive equity, she argues. “We have to address the systemic barriers in the culture that cause one group to have access to opportunities over others.”
A way to discern whether a company’s pledges are driving the organisation towards greater equity is to ask what is demonstrably active about the company’s initiatives, says Minda Harts, the author of career development book The Memo: What Women of Color Need To Know To Secure A Seat At The Table.
One place to start is the company’s “About us” page, she says. “You can see the face of leadership changing at many companies but, if you are a person of colour and you do not see yourself in leadership, then that is a problem.”
Other elements that give a fuller view of how a company is advancing towards its active equity are pay audits — such as software company Salesforce’s annual equal pay updates — or the publication of attrition rates and the progress of programmes aimed at improving staff retention levels.
“None of the companies are where they should be,” says Dwana Franklin-Davis, chief executive of Reboot Representation, a coalition of tech companies that are trying to double the number of women graduating with computer science degrees.
Data presentation can also tell a story about a company — and how it is trying to get better. “When a company publishes disaggregated data [by race, gender and level], it is a signal to me that they are intentional about intersectionality,” she adds.
It is difficult to assess what the culture of an organisation is from statistics. However, a thriving employee resource group could be a useful proxy of the company’s values and what it puts resources behind, says Franklin-Davis. “If people are not happy in an organisation, they are not going to participate in things like that. They are going to come to work, do their job and go home.”
An equitable workplace is one in which everyone has opportunities to grow, and the necessary investment in their skills to be successful. Much of that can be realised in the day-to-day direct relationship that an employee has with her manager.
Women of colour may often be the “only one” on a team. But having management that is adept at managing diverse employees — for example, by handling everyday microaggressions — can contribute to the psychological safety needed for everyone to bring their “full self” to work, says Harts.
The events of the past year have given companies the opportunity to make the workplace better than it was before, she says. “If you return to the office and nothing has changed, that shows me that this company is not invested in [your] success. Leaders have to decide if they want to demonstrate what equity is. And if they do, it’s going to require some action.”