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Three lessons for leaders looking to improve workplace diversity

Ruth Sealy, Professor of Responsible Leadership and Director of Impact at University of Exeter Business School, gives her advice to leaders tackling the diversity agenda.

8 March 2022

March 8th is International Women’s Day and every year it causes me to pause and reflect, often with contradictory feelings. On the one hand, during 15 years of research on women in leadership, we have witnessed much progress in gender equality. I hold a professorial role at a top university business school – something that was not an option for my highly intelligent mother. On the other hand, the sexualisation of women and issues around gender-based violence seem worse now than I remember as a university student – how do I explain this to my teenage daughter?

Gender inequality is recognised supranationally as a global challenge (United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5). This is illustrated clearly in the figures on women’s economic leadership. Low representation in leadership roles both reflects and perpetuates women’s lack of equal power and status, demonstrating the need for changes in gender norms to address societal-level gender inequalities.

As we inch forward out of the global pandemic, leaders in organisations of all forms are being advised to ‘build back better’ and to use the opportunity of ‘the great re-set’ to change the ways we work, based on our experiences and learning from the past 24 months.

Everything has changed and nothing has changed. But one issue that has been front and centre for the past two years has been that of diversity. This started with #MeToo movement and then the upsurge in the BlackLivesMatter movement in 2020.

The enormity of the impact of multiple inequalities around gender, ethnicity, disability, age, and social disadvantage became particularly manifest during the pandemic. Leaders found it harder to ignore what has at times felt like a pressing urgency to at least be seen to be doing and saying something about diversity issues. It’s no longer acceptable to say “it’s not one of our strategic priorities” or “I’ve asked HR to address this”.

Leaders need to be competent in discussing diversity, otherwise they risk looking out of touch and inept.  So, I offer three points for a responsible leader’s consideration: a point of advice, a point of opportunity and a point of caution. Here I am referring to gender diversity, but the points are applicable to many diversity characteristics.

1. Advice: Now more than ever, know your metrics

Many large multinational organisations have been building their gender data for 20 years, but most smaller companies are playing catch-up. Do not make assumptions (e.g., about what age or stage women or ethnic minorities get stuck or exit your organisation). You are bound to get caught out.

What data do you have about the demographics of your organisation? Is it static or life cycle? Most importantly, who gets to see it and use it? Are there clear lines of both responsibility and accountability for the data? Responsible decision-making needs to take account of all stakeholders, so ensure the data is fed into areas of strategic priority.

2. Opportunity: to be more purposeful around the diversity agenda

On a positive note, the shift in organisational and cultural expectations has given leaders permission to be more purposeful around the diversity agenda.

Values and purpose become more prominent in times of crisis. In addition, long-term sustainability, including intellectual capital and talent management, have become areas of increasing interest for investors on the Environment, Sustainability & Governance (ESG) agenda.

As part of a larger project for the NHS in 2020 (pre-COVID), we had the opportunity to interview several Chairs of NHS Trust boards across England that have successfully diversified their boards (achieving gender balance and averaging 20% of directors from ethnic minority groups).

The interviews focused not only on what Chairs’ motivations for diversification were, but also importantly on the how. A very big part of this was the Leader’s approach, whilst having an excellent understanding of what the levers of change are as well as the necessary actions to be taken.

Leaders clearly articulated their belief that greater board diversity was not going to happen on its own, and research would back this up! Chairs were emphatic that diversification had to be managed explicitly and proactively, with detailed data, just like any other change process. Their attitudinal approach and personal commitment to the outcomes was notable.

They knew what levers of change needed to be pulled including extending networks into their community; the use of search firms; multiple stakeholder buy-in; and changes to their communications around the diversity agenda.

They identified and then focused relentlessly on the actions for change, which in their case centred around the appointment processes for executive and non-executive directors, as well as the succession planning/talent management processes.

3. Caution: challenges around hybrid working

The third point is a note of caution: leaders face significant challenges in managing expectations around new hybrid work arrangements.

Whilst some are keen to get back to the office, some workers will expect increased flexibility and the ‘new ways of working’ to be a reality, without anyone really knowing the full impact on teams and group dynamics.

Additionally, leaders and managers will need to create psychological safety for workers to share aspects of their personal lives that pertain to work scheduling. Leaders could frame this as a joint challenge, with shared ownership, and lead by example, sharing aspects of their lives or challenges in the decision-making.

A significant concern about this increased flexibility is the danger of leaving people behind. Those who have the greatest need for flexibility, for example, those with childcare or eldercare responsibilities, those with disabilities or neuro-diversities, who are already not in the mainstream, may get slowly more eroded.  They will miss out on the water-cooler conversations and the great new assignment that just came in because they were not in the room when it was discussed. And they will miss out because of all the negative consequences of old-fashioned presenteeism that are baked firmly into the system.

In summary: know your metrics; take this opportunity to get proactive around the diversity agenda, and manage new hybrid work patterns purposefully.

And seize this moment – because if not now, when?



Professor Ruth Sealy Professor Ruth Sealy is Professor of Responsible Leadership and Director of Impact at the University of Exeter Business School.

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