The Diversity and Inclusion Agenda, and why we’re still talking about it

Over the last few years numerous organisations have started speaking openly about the importance of diversity and inclusion as a key part of their talent strategies, but statistics (and people) continue to illustrate and confirm that almost across the board, not enough progress is being made. For example:

Finance Focus: “A new study from Boston Consulting Group on behalf of the social mobility charity Sutton Trust shows that for many British students educated in a state school, a career in financial services remains elusive.”

The Manufacturer: “Various sources offer conflicting statistics, but one thing is starkly apparent –UK manufacturing has a shamefully large gender and diversity disparity, and progress appears to be moving at a glacial pace.”

National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ): “A lack of diversity within the British media​ continues to be a major concern in​ the industry and beyond.”

Solicitor’s Regulation Authority: “The report Mapping Advantages and Disadvantages suggests that on average across all types of firm there is a 73.5% chance of a white man becoming partner, compared to 29.1%, 18% and 13% for BAME men, white women, and BAME women respectively.”

The stats above indicate that unless there is something uniquely superior about white men and their leadership capabilities, there is something glaringly wrong with the ways in which our society defines, identifies and develops talent.

In 2019, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic published his book ‘Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?: (And How to Fix It)’, and within it he questions the characteristics we associate with leadership and how helpful these associations are. For example, he argues:

“traits like overconfidence and self-absorption should be seen as red flags”, when, in fact, the opposite tends to happen. “They prompt us to say: ‘Ah, there’s a charismatic fellow! He’s probably leadership material.’” It is this mistaken insistence that confidence equates to greatness that is the reason so many ill-suited men get top jobs, he argues. “The result in both business and politics is a surplus of incompetent men in charge, and this surplus reduces opportunities for competent people — women and men — while keeping the standards of leadership depressingly low.”

Gender is absolutely not the only challenge with regards to leadership- race, socio-economic status, sexuality, gender identity, physical disabilities and mental health and/ or neurodiversity are also significant contributing factors. However, what is interesting to note (and consistent with the wider themes of the D&I agenda) is that again and again, and despite reams of data illustrating that more diverse businesses make more money(!!!), we continue to give the same types of people top leadership roles… regardless of how frequently that same relatively small social group has messed it up royally up in the past. The reason I suggest that we should reflect upon this, is because we punish the members of much smaller social groups with disproportionate scrutiny when one of their members breaks through their particular glass ceiling, and is judged and found wanting.

In his talk at the New Yorker Festival in 2013, Malcolm Gladwell talks about “the illicit strategies that the stronger parties use to stay strong… to stay in power’ and goes on to question the narrative that we tend to accept, that once a single example of a newly accepted social group is invited to enter the bastion of privilege in question, it automatically ‘opens the doors’ for others of that social group. We often believe this to be the case, but Gladwell argues the opposite- that there are far more examples of the ‘pariah’ becoming the ‘token’ as opposed to the pioneer, and also questions how members of social groups outside the majority are treated.

“The number of your kind drives the way you are treated by the majority… you are always treated as a member of your group and not as an individual… people can’t get past the category… you are seen and yet unseen for who you are… and that creates an impossible dynamic”

In summary, Gladwell goes on to argue that in many cases the elevation of an individual member of the social group in question, is motivated by a desire to appear progressive- specifically to distract attention from an overwhelming lack of progress that is neither present nor desired amongst the privileged group in question. In general, the only exception to this rule is where it benefits the existing elite to be inclusive.

Following this talk and in response to a question asked by an audience member, Gladwell goes on to state ‘I don’t believe that those in positions of power willingly give up their authority… it has to be wrested from them.” Similar to the sentiments famously shared by Martin Luther King Jr. from Birmingham Jail on the 16th of April 1963 “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” 

What this means is for those of us continually amazed by the anger and contempt that a simple belief in equality and justice seems to provoke, is that the only time positive change happens, is when the people demand it.

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