Diversity Fatigue- is this a cause to worry?

International Women’s day is coming up and I see a frenzy of activities across organisations. Social media is rife with #eachforequal and #sheinspiresus. Starting with roses for women when I began working, to the depth and quality actions today towards enhancing diverse workforce, things have come a long way.

There is a real focus on making workplaces gender balanced. From having special recruitment drives to hire more women, to programs that help create a pipeline of women leaders, from raising awareness on gender biases, to running campaigns showcasing women role-models, organisations are making concerted efforts towards enhancing their gender diversity ratio.

There is so much going on, that one should feel a sense of excitement, yet I sense fatigue on the topic of gender balance among men and women in the multiple organisations I work with. The common refrain is that “we seem to be doing too much of diversity initiatives”. Women are irritated about being referred to as “diversity candidate”, managers seem to think there is a quota system and they are being subjected to metrics at the cost of quality personnel.

Maybe there is a lot of activity but without a clear purpose. Maybe many actions are initiated to be on the bandwagon but without a clear long-term focus. Maybe the actions seem like they are fixing the surface but not addressing the socio-cultural shifts required, that are hidden below. This is a complex issue and there is no single formula. However, I think there are three things that we can do to get re-energised.

Paint a picture of the future: Most organisations talk about what they are doing to increase the gender balance and bring more women into workforce.  The messaging is mostly around the actions taken and the shift in the numbers. This almost seems like steps taken to “right the wrong”. Managers on the ground say, “we have been doing well so far, what is the need to change?”. The reason to change is that the future looks different, the future demands diverse views. Businesses world over are realising they need to cater to diverse consumers, which needs people to think and act differently. This essentially means a workforce of the future looks and acts differently, representing the society more equitably.

Messages that articulate the business value of having diverse views, the impact it has on clients, how it helps deliver a different solution, how it creates a rich and vibrant workplace that has feminine and masculine dynamics at play, are necessary. Leaders need to identify specific examples and showcase a narrative that helps everyone imagine the organisation of the future.

Without that picture being painted, the actions in the current seem too many and the fatigue can pull things back.

Dig deep for data: Numbers speak directly, people understand the situation in greater depth when they are presented with the numbers. Often the numbers quoted on gender-balance are at the aggregate levels of the organisation. They tell only the partial picture of how the organisation has fared in raising or maintaining the ratio. However, the real story lies in the details. Showing imbalance at various levels, the drop in the numbers as the levels rise are the first step to building a narrative of why gender balance is required at all levels.

I have often heard managers say that more women in their teams leave due to life stage issues. When I ask them to dig the numbers out for men who left, keeping all things equal, they find that a higher percentage of men have left. When the re-hire data is dug up, very often they reveal that more men were hired to fill those roles than women. The subtle bias that exists is revealed clearly when the numbers are dug deep. Any time we have pushed organisations to dig deep data on the salaries, the tenure it takes to be promoted, the performance rating pre and post maternity, the allowances availed etc, a shocking pattern is revealed – there is a significant disparity between the genders, unfavourable to women. When such data becomes available the leadership can build the reasons for balance more strongly. Managers can become aware how their unconscious actions lead to such disparity. When organisations can use real numbers from within to show the disparity, it silences many voices that believe enough is being done.

Grab the chance for a seat at the table: If I were told that I was hired as a “diversity candidate”, I would be upset and start questioning if I was making the right choice, if I was a compromise, and if I truly deserve this. The “I” here holds true for most capable women that I know. No one among us wants to be labelled. Women want to be recognised for their capability and value they bring. Similarly, women wonder if they are getting that promotion because of the gender. I believe women should take a pragmatic approach and grab that seat at the table. The only way the narrative can be shaped by women is when there are more at the decision-making table, so every opportunity to do that is a step to preparing the ground for the next generation of women. Without a seat at the table the mindset and the language cannot be changed. By articulating the specific business value they bring, by showcasing how their views give a new shape to the organisation, how they impact the culture and make it future ready, women can silence the voices within oneself and outside.

The reality in most organisations is that the gender ratios are far from being balanced. There is a huge skew towards men as the levels go up. Despite the efforts in the last decade, the change is miniscule. The World Economic Forum report says it will take more than 200 years to achieve economic parity among men and women at most workplaces. While in your own organisation it might seem like a lot is being done, ask for some specific numbers and you will be surprised to learn how little has changed strategically. If you are one of those feeling the fatigue, figure out a way to articulate the business value women bring to the table, push your leaders to articulate how having a balanced workforce impacts business and ask for deep data that can show the untold story. Re-energise your workplace by re-energising yourself with a sense of purpose armed with right data.

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