Last month, I moderated a panel on innovations in driving DEI as part of Women Business Collaborative’s (WBC) Rethinking and Accelerating Diversity and Women’s Leadership in Business event. Seramount has been a longtime partner of WBC, and together, we work to advance women to the highest ranks in leadership and address societal challenges that drive women out of the workforce. I was joined by Jo Linda Johnson, Vice President of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIB) Strategy & Equity, Capital One; Michelle Gadsden-Williams, Managing Director and Global Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Blackrock; and Khalil Smith, Vice President of Inclusion, Diversity, and Engagement, Akamai Technologies to discuss two key issues: mitigating bias in the interview process and the concept of intersectional allyship. It was an exciting conversation between four very passionate DEI professionals about how we can all play a part in creating inclusive workplaces where women and underrepresented talent can thrive. Here are my key takeaways:
Over the past two years, there has been an increased focus on bolstering the recruitment and hiring practices of underrepresented talent (URT). There is widespread concurrence that in spite of efforts being made, progress is slow, and measured results have been disheartening. I believe that there’s simply not enough diversity focus in the minds and leadership styles of middle management. How can we blame them? We demand so much of our middle managers without adequately equipping them with the skills and resources to do better. If we are able to do a good job of building those competencies, will our pipelines of women and underrepresented talent who report to them grow stronger?
Data has a huge role to play, and as Khalil Smith told me, “Companies are run by humans, and all humans have biases.” He went on to say, “We are trying to bring everyone along—the head, the heart, and the hands—to say how do we understand this intellectually, how do we systematize it and bake it into the things we need to do? How do we care deeply about this so that it’s not just a box we are checking on the side?”
Michelle Gadsden-Williams believes that unconscious biases can creep into the recruitment process and that we need to better understand how that can ultimately impact a hiring decision. She notes that “education and awareness are required. At Blackrock, we have our recruiters and hiring managers go through cultural competency training to better understand cultural norms. It’s the first step in unraveling unconscious bias because it allows employees to recognize that they have biases for themselves and to determine what steps an organization can take to minimize them.” We all make assumptions about people. It’s a natural, human thing. And we can’t remove bias completely. We just need to find ways to mitigate it.
Jo Linda Johnson also emphasized the fact that what gets measured gets done. Coming from the federal government, where transparency and data go hand in hand, she recognizes that this is a conversation that we need to have on a more robust level within the private sector. Our stakeholders, whether it be our employees, customers, or shareholders, want to know that we are headed in the right direction when it comes to DEI.
It’s not about winning or losing. Organizations mustn’t be afraid of the DEI goals they have set for themselves, and once this has been accepted, it will be approached in a very different way. Khalil talked about how he approaches DEI goals within his organization and with his team: ACTS (Accountability, Community, Transparency, Simplicity). Don’t be afraid to think of it the same way you would think of increasing margins, revenue, and customer growth: Set your goals; tie metrics to it. Do these things and do them well, follow the processes in place, and ultimately, you will end up with a diverse and inclusive organization.
Once they hit middle management, many women and underrepresented talent end up walking away from their careers, and DEI ultimately suffers within organizations. Middle managers aren’t the only managers who should be held accountable, but they are the key to a successful DEI strategy. “Accountability tends to fade the further you go down in the organization,” Michelle told me. “Middle managers must be fully bought in and have support from senior managers who can then cascade those messages and accountability measures from the top down. There’s a lack of clear business case and rationale as to why this is important, and the middle managers don’t understand what’s in it for them. You have to give your workforce reason to want to stay with you.”
It’s important for all of you, no matter where you are on your life journey, to understand the concept of stepping up for others as a champion, an advocate, an ally, or ambassador. Part of that understanding is also realizing that we are all accountable for creating a spirit of inclusion and belonging, whether it’s in your place of work or in your community. It’s a matter of being intentional in your approach and recognizing the need to see others more wholly instead of how they show up in “systems.” I call this “intersectional allyship.”
Remember, it starts with you. We need to look at ourselves as a larger network of people who are ultimately trying to make the world a better place. Each of us has the ability to be empathetic and do something for someone else. Give yourself permission to be that “agent of change” and be a part of the DEI team no matter your rank or title or role.
“Stepping up for a group that you aren’t a part of can be a powerful thing,” said Jo Linda. “At a past organization, as a senior leader, I was required to step forward to mentor and sponsor individuals or groups that didn’t look like me. That taught me a tremendous amount about that group, and it gave that group exposure and taught them about how senior leadership may see things in a way they didn’t quite understand. It’s a best practice that has served me in my career. It has helped me to see groups a little more holistically and not how they show up in systems.”
During our prep sessions leading up to this panel, Khalil said something to me that really resonated: We attempt to change beliefs in hopes that it will change behaviors. When really, it’s the opposite. But in order to do that, you need to change the system, whether it’s about recruitment and hiring practices, advancement, or retention. “If you change your entire process, then you don’t have to change each individual because you’ve put them in a better system. When you build a better system, you build better behaviors, and ultimately, the hope is that the belief will change too,” he told our audience.
We walked away recognizing that in order to create inclusive cultures, just engaging the CEO and senior leaders in a top-down approach or leveraging grassroots Employee Business Resource Groups and Networks has not done the job and has not proven to be enough. Middle managers are a critical part of the equation, and we have to do a better job of getting their buy-in. Ultimately, ensuring that all employees both recognize and embrace the role of a DEI ambassador is what may bring success.
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