Making Diversity & Inclusion A Priority, 5 Things We Can Do Better.

Fight for Diversity: Erhobene Faust vor einem Hintergund mit stilisiertem Corona-Virus.
At first, diversity and inclusion appears to be a win-win situation: it ameliorates structural social injustice by including and promoting marginalised groups, while enabling companies better decision making, higher financial returns, and more innovative ideas. Yet, many have spoken and written about the damaging effects of an empty diversity and inclusion rhetoric where diversity and inclusion serves merely as a fig leaf to protect the status quo rather than challenge it.

This ambiguous character of diversity and inclusion was a hot topic at 2018’s Diversity Konferenz in Berlin, Germany’s leading conference for diversity and inclusion in the world of work. Experts from industry and academia shared their experiences and best practices, constantly repeating that despite all efforts, we still have a long way to go. As Prof. Dr. Naika Foroutan, put it: ‘Our society is becoming increasingly diverse, but not increasingly equal’. Thus, despite the fact that the proportion of women who veil becomes bigger and bigger in Germany, female migrants who wear a headscarf have to send more than four times as many applications for an invitation to a job interview than applicants with the exact same qualifications.

What is holding up the progress?It should be clear by now that we can no longer afford to overlook this talent. But what gets in the way (Islamophobia, anyone?). Catalyst, a non profit organisation that aims for gender diversity, lists the main reasons why many diversity and inclusion programmes fail:

Lack of a clear strategy and patchy engagement and accountability

Laudable aspirations but laughable resources

Lack of awareness/acceptance of impact of exclusion

Difference between diversity and inclusion is not fully understood or discussed

Focus on non-dominant groups (women should fix it themselves)

And yet, conferences such as Diversity illustrate that more and more organisations begin to understand diversity and inclusion as a vital element for organizational success and employee engagement. Unfortunately, most of them simply do not know how to do it successfully.

5 Things We Can Do Better

1. Start early

Most organisations don’t consider diversity and inclusion as a priority when they first start out. Other issues seem more pressing and diversity and inclusion appears to be more of an afterthought, or a nice-to-have, when it should be a sincere effort that starts from day one. “If you need to hire people quickly and don’t take diversity and inclusion into account, maybe you’ll meet your deadline, but you’ll pay the price eventually. You’ll become too homogeneous. You’re less resilient to a crisis. You’re more subject to groupthink. That can also lead to a toxic environment” warns Manu Smadja, co-founder of edtech and financial inclusion startup MPOWER Financing. Fixing it later is much bigger effort than weaving into your culture from the beginning. Check out: Diversity & Inclusion 101 for Startups.

2. Hold yourself accountable

Even though numbers and quotas do not automate inclusion, they do help to get the overall picture of an organisation. This is why diversity and inclusion experts such as Project Include recommend companies and their executives to hold themselves accountable by tracking results using comprehensive surveys and benchmarks. At Diversity 2018, Daniel Gyamerah from Citizens for Europe demonstrated the importance of diversity-sensitive data collection to promote diversity in the workplace. Collecting this data shows the status quo of the organisation, it makes visible who is working for the organisation, in which positions they are, and for how long. In other words, it illustrates how an organisation is doing, where it can improve, and who needs to improve.

3. Get everyone involved

Diversity and inclusion isn’t owned by one person, it takes a team effort and it is far from easy. Diversity and inclusion requires company-wide involvement across teams and functions, at all levels of the organization. Yet, the CEO is a key figure in making diversity and inclusion a success, because only the CEO can set the vision and prioritize diversity and inclusion so that all employees understand its importance, have the difficult conversations, and do the hard work required. The CEO must hold the executive team accountable for the same work, ideally as part of set performance goals.

The more people are on board with the idea of creating an inclusive workplace, actively engage in the process, the better it works. The opposite was evident with a previous client of mine, a large Silicon Valley tech company, whose CEO didn’t believe in the effects of unconscious bias (or that anything can be done about it). This belief had trickled down to other members of senior management, who also refused to engage in the subject, knowing the CEO’s attitude.

4. Invest in training & education

Training and workshops are key for building culture. They help inform staff and more importantly mid-level managers who need to understand why diversity and inclusion is important to a successful organization. This shouldn’t be a force-fed, one-time exercise but needs to be proactive, on-going and conveyed in a number of ways to reach staff at all levels. The training you choose should be carefully designed, and should not ‘trigger’ participants. As Suzanne Wertheim argues: ‘Members of the majority group should not feel “blamed and shamed”. And members of underrepresented groups should not be forced to relive and perform painful experiences in order to educate their colleagues. Everyone should leave feeling empowered to make their organization even better.’

Source: Harvard Business Review 2016

5. Audit your company communications

How does your website look? What is the first thing that people see when they look up your company and click on the ‘about us’ section? Only white men in suits? Are your job ads full of superlatives and ‘masculine’ associated language? Then it is of little surprise that you don’t have a more diverse set of candidates applying to work there.

In 2019 it is time to get intelligent about gender and diversity and learn about gender sensitive, inclusive language (especially for German companies, as the “Third Gender” Federal Resolution came into action in December 2018). This might need time and effort, because it asks us to change deeply embedded habits and to consider the implications of words and phrases that have long gone unchallenged. But it is worth it, because it moves your organization forward to a more inclusive and engaged place.

If you would like to know more about the first steps towards a diverse and inclusive workplace or if you have a specific question, visit GenderIQ or write to

And remember…

You got this!

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— Sevkan Bolu, Global HR Manager, Vaillant Group
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