Like green shoots in spring, recent growth in Diversity and Inclusion is a healthy sign of bigger things to come. For years, D&I strategies struggled to break free of box ticking initiatives. To many, it felt like heartfelt change would only come with a shift in company culture. Over the last 18 months a dramatic shift in culture has put new energy into D&I strategies, and is set to shape the agenda in future skills in the months and years ahead.

All too often, business practices evolve slowly over time. A voluntary code of conduct, for example, might tentatively creep in through the door, work its way through the system and only slowly make a difference. Alternatively, wholehearted change led by internal passion and enthusiasm leaps in through a window without so much as a please or thank you, ready to take the place by storm.

This second type of change – cultural shift – is meaningful and heartfelt. When driven by powerful voices, it gets things done properly and speedily. Cultural shift is an efficient way of implementing wholesale change. Think of the law that banned drink-driving – and the number of additional lives saved after a cultural shift in attitudes targeted those who ignored it.


Awareness over time

Many companies have long embraced cultural change in D&I. To others however, a nod in the right direction was enough. New joiners filled out forms about their background, staff attended one-off sessions on unconscious bias training (UBT). They were sometimes left with the impression that bias existed but there wasn’t much they could do about it. To some, this raised the question of whether they needed to try.

In December 2020, the UK government published a summary of the evidence on unconscious bias training. It found that “there is currently no evidence that this training changes behaviour in the long term or improves workplace equality in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups.” While UBT has since been phased out in the Civil Service, the government has perhaps missed an opportunity to lead workplace research into more effective D&I training. Another chance was missed with the government’s divisive Sewell Report, published in April 2021.

At Working Voices, we encourage clients to begin their understanding of bias by seeking awareness. This involves breaking free of the belief that ‘inner demons’ can be removed. Better to tackle the consequences instead, persistently over time. Our D&I lead Chico Chakravorty says that all too often UBT is provided in a single session, “and then the subject is left”. Chico suggests that an understanding of bias needs to be built over time, “we have to think about what we’re looking to achieve.”

D&I before Covid

The current trend towards D&I is rooted in past developments, momentum was building in the years before the pandemic. In 2015, consultants McKinsey published a report on ‘Why Diversity Matters’ which found that “companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.”

A similar case was made by the Peterson Institute in 2016 and by Cloverpop in 2017. In a report published in 2018, Deloitte listed eight major insights into D&I strategies developed through work with approximately 50 companies.

Despite these studies and reports, business still had a way to go. The first of Deloitte’s conclusions was that “diversity of thinking is the new frontier”. It certainly felt like that at many FTSE companies, where diversity was a psychological frontier that few were ready to cross. In 2019, D&I consultancy Green Park found that the number of BAME Chairs, CEOs and CFOs (10 individuals) had not improved over the six years monitored. New impetus was needed.


Turning points

In early 2020, Covid triggered an overnight need for more flexible thinking. People had to quickly learn to work from home, often in demanding circumstances. Many caught Covid, families lost loved ones; empathy and understanding increased. Companies needed to quickly embrace a newfound sense of flexibility, agility and empathy.

Three months after the pandemic began, the murder of George Floyd prompted protests around the world, led by the Black Lives Matter movement. No country was able to deny that racism existed within their borders. Empathy for diversity wasn’t enough. Politicians (beyond Trump’s White House) and business leaders recognised this was a turning point. Companies scrambled to set out their position on Black Lives Matter, Working Voices among them.


Adding D&I to DNA

These international developments sparked long-lasting cultural change across the economy. This can be particularly seen in new D&I commitments, the visible sign of forces at work behind the scenes that will shape business practices throughout the 2020s.

New hunger for diversity and inclusion is taking a front and centre role within companies. In April 2021, a survey of 7,500 professionals in Britain and Ireland by recruiter Robert Walters found that twice as many employees were aware of their employer’s diversity and inclusion initiatives than they were a year earlier. HR departments are favouring gender-neutral terms and encouraging the discussion of biases in the workplace. Box ticking exercises are being replaced with an interest in bringing D&I into all aspects of business life.

Margot Goodson, VP and Head of Diversity and Inclusion at global technology company SAP, argues that it’s not enough to just offer ‘training’; D&I must become a core component of an organisation’s cultural DNA. According to The Society for Diversity, most companies will adopt diversity as a part of their core business model in the post-pandemic “Next Normal”.


Awareness – the key to survival

While these developments offer evidence of the deeper cultural shift in play over recent months, inevitably there is more that can be done. Although there is no significant evidence of behaviour change in UBT single interventions, the case for ongoing awareness remains as strong as ever. Awareness is the starting point for change.

The pandemic led to increased awareness of the values of empathy and flexibility. Increased awareness has been driving D&I strategies in recent months. Awareness will give early warning of the challenges we face in the future. Supply chain issues, new variants of Covid, the Climate Emergency and sabre-rattling on the geopolitical stage all threaten uncertainty in the short to mid-term. In these circumstances, pursuing the cultural shift towards awareness and flexibility will prove the key to survival. Companies that are slow to accept this risk being left behind.


For tips on managing company culture, take a look at our complete Guide to Leadership Skills


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