Diversity absolutes and the absurdity of decency by design
I never understood how we allowed “diversity and inclusion” to become a thing that happens as a standalone activity, by people who do that full time while the rest do the stuff that needs fixing? It seems rather counter-intuitive. Like paying someone to exercise for me to lose weight. Somehow I don’t think it will work.
But it happened and there are events and committees and panels and pledges while life continues pretty much like it always did at the core of business, where people hire, promote and reward largely in their own image while the diversity workers hit the gym on the corporate’s behalf, so to speak.
That won’t work.
And the reason it won’t work is that diversity needs to be about decision-making, organisational resilience and breaking the patterns of predictability. Beyond gender, race and outward trappings of middle class respectability, lie values, behaviours and points of view that help us ensure outcomes don’t stay the same, as the world changes. It is a business imperative, not a marketing play.
Where are all the women? Photo op diversity
We are getting better at calling it out when we see teams, panels or organisations that visually don’t represent the rest of the world. The world is not male, white and 55 and there is something very wrong if that’s all you’ve got representing your organisation or driving your efforts because it’s kind of…. samey… so if samey is not what you want for your business, then obviously there is a thing you need to fix.
But as my female but otherwise corporate poster child boss told me about 15 years ago: diversity matters. Always look around the room and be sure you see it. Good advice in principle, provided you learn to go beyond photo ops. Because it’s a start, an important start. But it really isn’t where we unpack and settle. Because it is entirely possible that we have not changed our organisation as much as challenged these different-looking people to behave in ways established and familiar. Like signing up for the gym, but never actually going. Good first step. But you know. Not in itself adequate.
What’s wrong with you?
Against my better judgment I attended a diversity event recently. The panels were stale. They covered every event, side issue, campaign and non-employment, performance or hiring-related behaviour conceivable. And then at the end of the session, I found myself in conversation with a very focused young woman who marched up to me, told me she was a three way diversity play herself (no, I didn’t ask) and how did I find the event. I said something vaguely constructive about how we need move past marketing to facilitating access (to the system, to the career ladder, to the full story) and calling out the micro aggressions, the sexism, the racism, the superiority, the exclusionary behaviours shutting people of non identical backgrounds into the mix.
What’s wrong with you? She asked. Why do you need help? You will never succeed like that.
You have to be strong. And play the system. She said.
She had no idea who I am, didn’t ask and loved feeling sorry for me and intensely superior.
I loved it, too, you understand. Absolutely loved it. The fact that diversity is achieved by looking different and behaving the same. One way, one size, one mould to suit them all. One game to play, with an added layer called the diversity card. Learn to call it and you are in.
And then I saw it. All the behaviours we are trying to diversify away from, in a new package. And mightier than before for being sanctified by the diversity brush. If we wanted people who didn’t listen, asked no questions, felt their way was the only way and dismissed difference of opinion on sight, surely we had plenty of that in our boardrooms already.
A physicist, a mother and a foreigner walk into a bar
I did not engage in conversation with the “three way diversity play” lady longer than I had to. Because all I could say to her is “what you are describing will work for you, but not for the future”. And she would tell me the future is not her problem, each man for himself or whatever. And we know how that plays itself out. We’ve seen this show before.
And therein lies our problem.
What’s diversity good for?
It gives us the view from nowhere, that makes us challenge the views from our desk and our boardroom, that allow us to forget that the world can exist without our business and therefore we should stay useful and relevant rather than entrenched and entitled. It makes for better software, better design, better user journeys, better service resilience, better disaster recovery, better corporate responsibility. Higher profitability.
Hiring a diverse work force isn’t just about breaking the mould of the white middle class male. It’s about diversifying their behaviour so we can capture benefits and generate client value beyond what they are capable of. Not because they are not good at what they do. They are. Exceptionally good. But because we need to be good at more than what they do and the only way to get there is to diversify the doers and the doing.
So photo op diversity that comes at the heavy price of behavioural conformity doesn’t get us anywhere near where we need to be.
The hardest time I have ever had persuading an organisation to hire someone has been when I wanted to hire a theoretical physicist without solid banking credentials, to join a team of banking engineers. When I wanted to hire a product manager who had gone from cool project to cool project but hadn’t stayed in a corporate organisation, climbing the ladder long enough to be relatable to the bankers in the room.
They were both white, Anglo, male.
Diversity in background and experience caused the same resistance as hiring women or non white candidates a few years ago. As it still does, way too often. Because they come, we come, with fundamentally different backgrounds and experiences. And the resistance is non verbal or couched in language of exceptionalism.
Each case is a special case and yet they all take us to the same place. Repeatable predictability.
Do the hard stuff first
There are three incredibly hard things to do, in any organisation.
- Hire people who are different to you, who you will have to teach and who you will be prepared to learn from. It means you will invest time and be ready to be challenged and work at making it work. It is time consuming and non-linear.
- Challenge behaviours that diminish, demean and compromise any of your workforce. No matter how junior. No matter how individually smart and shiny they may be. Don’t just protect your stars. Protect everyone. Challenge the behaviours that perpetuate old power dynamics. Because those power dynamics set the tone and that tone matters more than all the initiatives and panels and committees in the world.
- Reward outcome-based experimentation and diversification. Measure if diversity is leading to diversification, and assess how thoroughly you are supporting the transition with HR policies, risk profiles, execution cadence etc. If you hire them and then bind their hands with the established way of doing things, you are choosing to not go far the long and expensive way.
Diversity is not about optics. It’s about outcomes. It’s about taking responsibility for the future of your business and saying the world is changing, I need to change with it, I don’t know what I don’t know so let’s mix up the people doing the thinking to capture as much value as possible. This is not about corporate social responsibility and ticks in boxes. This is about business viability and profitability. This is about the heart of business. And it doesn’t start with quotas and being a three-way diversity play. It starts with the acceptance that your way ain’t the only way, be it your way of doing business or your way of doing diversity.
This is about being a decent human and a savvy business leader. And it’s not done by quotas, committee or side-of-desk activity.
So when a physicist, a mother and a foreigner walk unto a bar you should see no joke, no photo op, no HR problem waiting to happen. But an opportunity to get smarter, better, faster and more profitable than the three guys with identical ties and identical CVs sitting a meeting room discussing their DnI (yes diversity and inclusion has an acronym) and exercise-by-proxy budget.
It’s time to hit the gym and break a sweat.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption as chief of staff at 11:FS and CEO of 11:FS Foundry.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!