Diverse Leadership: Breaking the Bias

It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when DE&I moved from the periphery of the corporate agenda to its heart, but its inclusive ethos has become a top priority for organisations looking to create fairer, more representative cultures in which diverse talent can flourish and grow.
Diane Nowell
Mar 24, 2022

As our global economies begin to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, it’s an auspicious time for companies to accelerate the implementation of their DE&I vision. And, with the business case for greater diversity already settled, leaders could use this opportunity to reimagine a workplace – and a workforce – transformed via sustainable interventions designed to promote equity and justice.

But with practice lagging behind ideology, how do we get to the point where DE&I is simply part of how companies operate?

It’s a question we put to panellists at a recent Headspring event, held on International Women’s Day, and convened with the aim of exploring how organisations and business leaders can be more effective in realising their diversity and inclusion strategies.

Embracing DE&I strategy at a cultural level

Dr Claudia Deniers is the Global Head of Leadership Development at Siemens Energy, a company that employs 91,000 staff from 150 countries. Siemens Energy has established a global framework for DE&I that empowers local and regional operations to deploy their own practical interventions.

‘Our CFO is also the Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer, which means that DE&I has visibility at the core of our business,’ says Claudia.

‘Our central strategy is based on three axes: equal opportunities, which is about process; belonging, which speaks to culture; and society which focuses on how we show up in society, how we collaborate with stakeholders and partners to make DE&I part of all our business interactions.’

When it comes to strategy, there is no one-size-fits-all template, however. While organisations may share broadly similar goals in terms of advancing workplace equity, individual companies will be guided by their own imperatives – which are likely to vary, depending on their existing landscape.

Establishing measurable goals

Elvira Arango is Global Manager of Leadership and Culture at MAPFRE. MAPFRE already has a strong culture of ethical and social commitment and a successful gender diversity strategy that has translated into impressive results – at least 40 percent of the company’s executive responsibilities are currently held by women. The company’s gender targets, therefore, are incremental rather than radical:

‘Because women make up 56 percent of our workforce, our belief is that women should hold equal representation at executive level – this is our next goal.’

The targets are different at family-owned Swiss manufacturing company Schindler. Eric Way is Schindler’s Global Head of inclusion, Diversity and CSR.

‘Our teams represent diverse nationalities but, from a gender perspective, there’s a distinct split between our workforce of mobile technicians, where just 2 percent are women, and our office-based population, which is 25-to-30 percent female,’ says Eric. ‘Our main focus right now is to increase the numbers of women in leadership positions via an inclusive leadership programme.’

Re-evaluating the work-life balance

The gender imbalance was disrupted by the pandemic. Women and other underrepresented groups were more likely to be working in the sectors that were hardest hit by the pandemic – hospitality, for example – and, although some benefited from greater opportunities to work from home, many also carried a disproportionate burden of care.

One big change for employers is that staff have begun seeking a better work-life balance Gulshin Ijaz is Leadership Development & OD Manager for EY. She believes that the future of work is changing as people re-evaluate their options:

‘Employees have become consumers of work and are redefining what’s important for them. Forward-thinking employers must rethink the employee value proposition to meet these changing needs and to plan for the future by creating more agile ways of working.’

It’s a sentiment echoed by Sibylle Schroedter, Diversity & HR Development Manager at intelligent robotics solutions company KUKA.

‘Many companies – especially in the tech sector – are struggling to hire. The broader shift to an employees’ market means that we need to broaden the candidate pool, which adds a sense of urgency to DE&I implementation.’

Companies that are looking at recruitment and retention through a DE&I lens are more likely to prioritise flexibility, as well as to attract a wider range of candidates with diverse talents.

There are implications, too, for promoting more equitable working styles. If remote-first and hybrid have had a positive impact on inclusion, we need to continue reinforcing the need for work to be purposeful, to create cultural equity and inclusion by focusing on outcomes, not on hours served. It’s something to consider as more people return to the office.

Working out what works

Diversity training is clearly an important part of DE&I strategy – but it can be difficult to get it right; unconscious bias isn’t necessarily unravelled by awareness training.

However, our panellists agreed that sharing experiences via storytelling can be powerful tools for inclusion, especially when used to help people to listen and learn from others’ experiences of exclusion. Siemens Energy deploys a ‘Listen, Learn, Act’ intervention, while at Schindler, one impactful training programme focuses on the small personal actions that can help address unconscious bias and promote inclusion.

Sibylle Schroedter highlighted the success of an annual innovation campaign at KUKA that encourages the formation of temporary project groups and demonstrates how diverse teams create better results than more homogenous ones.

Cutting across the topics for discussion, there was a general consensus that hard targets do work; where companies commit to specific improvements, rather than vague awareness goals, they record tangible outcomes. And, while government quotas may be a necessary evil, providing an intermediate stimulus for change, our panellists agreed that personal change was more important in the long term – although harder to influence.

Gulshin Ijaz: ‘We need something tangible and measurable to hold businesses accountable for outcomes. But we also need a culture change to show that diversity is valuable, and that people belong at every level in our organisations.

‘Historically, leadership programmes have focused on empowering underrepresented groups but we also need to fix the system so individuals can thrive.’

Diane Nowell

Writer and communications consultant