I’m not too fond of gender quotas. Gender quotas, whether on corporate boards, at the senior management level, and in politics, are seen as an effective method to increase the diversity and representation of women in business and politics.
I am not entirely convinced. I believe that the quotas are successful in achieving diversity metrics. But quotas are not effective in implementing inclusion nor in providing equitable access. Quotas can also create tension and doubt. Was the person only selected because of the way they looked rather than their capabilities and potential?
Earlier in my career, I often found myself the only woman in the room. I grew up in South-East Asia and spent most of my professional life in the U.S. and Europe. I was often the “odd one out” in the room of older white men. Over time I developed a keen sense of observation to adapt and modulate my language to fit in with the others.
I wanted to belong and fit in with “the boys” in the room. I wanted to be included in the conversation. I feared exclusion.
Persistence of the Broken Rung
McKinsey recently reported that for every hundred men promoted to manager, only eighty-six women are promoted. They also found that most of the work done to improve wellbeing and diversity within the workplace is undertaken by women. Senior-level women are twice as likely as senior-level men to dedicate time to these tasks at least weekly. They are more likely than men to educate themselves about the challenges that women of color face at work, speak out against discrimination, and mentor or sponsor women of color.
But less than a quarter of the companies surveyed recognize the importance of such diversity work in performance reviews. Work that is not recognized tends to get deprioritized over time. Progress will be slow unless every employee is made accountable and assessed for diversity and inclusion work.
A diverse workforce—gender, racial, ethnicity, religion, and physical ability—has clear benefits for business. Different backgrounds create innovative and creative environments and produce a range of perspectives that can enhance business growth and profitability. But these benefits are only available to diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces.
Women and people of color hired only to meet diversity quotas tend to leave when they are excluded from discussions and not provided further opportunities to advance in their roles. Attrition is expensive and disruptive for teams.
Blind Spots and Privilege
To be more inclusive, start by educating yourself in the experiences of those who don’t look like you. What is it like to walk in their shoes? What are the burdens that they carry that you are not aware of? What are the implicit biases, and how can you change the conversation to be more inclusive?
While not everyone may be comfortable sharing their personal experiences, start from a place of understanding and seek to discover what can be done to shift the perspectives in society.
Privilege—wealth, power, or position in society—can be used for good. Advocate for those who may be traditionally overlooked in the workplace. How to engage them during meetings? How to increase transparency in work allocation or promotions? How can access to opportunities be made more equitable within the team?
What about hiring processes and performance reviews? What choice of words are used in describing the candidate and requirements? In hiring new team members, I chose a panel of interviewers who had different backgrounds from me. We had a group of people with various skill sets, experiences, knowledge, and perspectives to meet with candidates. Although this took up more time and required more investment from the team, it removed unconscious biases from the selection process.
Familiarization and Normalization
Regularly bringing women and people of color to the front stage changes the narrative of what leadership looks like. Create opportunities for them to present their talent and provide the support to help them succeed. What barriers could be removed to set them up for success?
What about intergroup contact? How might people from different backgrounds be brought together to mitigate negative perceptions of the “other”? How to pair individuals who may not otherwise interact within the workspace? The key to designing such interactions is curiosity and interest to learn from others, rather than something mandated top-down.
Diversity quotas move workplaces into taking action now. In the long run, they may not be the most sustainable solutions. A more viable solution is to build inclusive and equitable workplace cultures that involve changes in mindset and systems.