The Promise of Diversity: Turning Hope into Action

Diversity matters. Most people know this inherently but introducing real and lasting change can be difficult. Issues relating to diversity are multi-layered and complex and require changes to culture, values, and decision-making processes at both the individual and organizational level. While diversity is an important business consideration for companies and political issue for governments, for individuals from underrepresented groups, it is of more personal, fundamental and lasting significance.

Global efforts have been made to increase the role of women as senior leaders in business and government. Part of this wider campaign has focused on increasing the number of women on boards and committees. Different countries have employed various methods to achieve change. Some, such as Norway, have introduced quotas with the government playing an activist role. Others, such as Australia, have generally left it up to business to make change. Recently, countries in Asia and the Middle East have introduced campaigns to encourage greater gender diversity on boards. The 30% Club is off the ground and flying high in many markets, including the United States, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Australia, Malaysia and other countries; while in Singapore a business/government partnership, the Diversity Action Committee has an ambitious agenda to make lasting change in that city state.

Both business and government now understand that greater diversity can lead to improved creativity, productivity and profit. There is now recognition of the strong business case for diversity. Research by executive search firm, Korn/Ferry found almost all global executives it polled in 2013 believe diversity and inclusion can boost results. No doubt a board reflective of gender, nationality, age, and inclusive of individuals with different life experiences would also better connect the business with their customer base and engage with their workforce.

Being convinced of the benefits of diversity is obviously positive, but it’s even better to be convinced of the need for greater diversity because it’s the right thing to do. Even then, thinking about diversity is not enough, the more important and difficult part is to actually turn thoughts into action and action into lasting change. It’s more difficult to make meaningful changes to your own life than to think about the lives of others. Personal relationships mixed with societal expectations and personal experiences can create barriers to change. A company chair may appreciate the intrinsic benefits of bringing more women and younger people onto a board, but may have difficulty implementing changes to a board's composition if it means ejecting life-long friends or family.

Individuals, organizations and societies can create artificial limits to diversity. Often leaders are scared to take the risk of appointing someone who is from outside their usual circle of associates. Sometimes life experiences create barriers to considering diversity in a holistic way. For example, a leader may see real need for a board or senior team to have a greater diversity of experience, but because of personal beliefs, that same individual may have very little interest in having gay and lesbian people in these roles. If a firm is internationalizing, then it makes a great deal of business sense to include people from new markets on the board and in the senior management team, however, what if the history of these countries is infected by war and mistrust...will they really hand over powerful leadership roles to people who they ultimately don’t trust? Obviously stereotyping individuals on the basis of past actions of their government is irrational, but the reality is that deep-seated views and emotions are difficult to shake off. Yet we must. Organizations will only become more inclusive places to work if leaders take deliberate actions to make them so, regarding of their own personal beliefs.

A 2014 study by executive search firm, Russell Reynolds Associates, showed that a significant barrier to achieving more diverse boards sprung from a reticence to appoint those with less experience or from outside of existing networks. The report stated that “companies too often pursue the ‘usual suspects’.”

Individual job seekers, regardless of their level, should be selective in who they work for. It’s important to support a company the supports you. Ask around your network about firms and their commitment to difference and diversity. A true commitment to diversity will show through in both policy and corporate culture. Ask questions that examine both these areas. Many firms have great policy on diversity that sits in a ring-binder gathering dust. Others may have developed an accepting, tolerant, and creative culture in the absence of policy, this is all very well until management changes or a significant issue or conflict develops. Various organizations produce guides for both individual job seekers and manuals for companies. One example is Community Business in Hong Kong that has developed a LGBT Workplace Inclusion Index, an initiative that the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (AESC) is glad to support.

Despite significant momentum for the increased diversity at the board and senior executive level, the data is often underwhelming. Fenwick & West, US law firm, analyzed 18 years of data regarding boards and management teams across the Standard & Poor 100 Index and the Silicon Valley 150 Index to identify gender diversity trends. The number of women on boards and senior roles had increased from 2.1% in 1996 to 9.1% in 2013, still well below the general level of female participation in the workforce. Some countries have even seen figures decline, New Zealand Council of Women Chair, Rae Duff, said “It’s not good enough that the representation of women in senior management positions in the private sector has sharply declined, from 31 per cent in 2014 to 19 per cent in 2015 and women’s representation on private sector boards also lags and sits at 14.4 per cent,” following the release of a report titled Tracking Equality at Work. While a 2015 report from Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu shows that the number of women on boards is gradually increasing globally, the number of women chairs is low, currently at: 5% EMEA, 4% in the Americas, and 4% Asia-Pacific. The glass ceiling may have cracks, but is far from collapse.

All this goes to show that even with increased support for diversity initiatives and strong evidence to support the business case for diversity, lasting and sustainable change is still some way off. It’s good to talk about change, but it will only actually occur once each of us, as individuals, look deep inside ourselves and ask what we can do in our own lives to make change meaningful and real.

For more on the AESC's position on diversity, download the "Diversity as a Business Imperative" white paper.

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This article was originally published on the BlueSteps Executive Career Insider Blog.

About the author

Patrick is based in Hong Kong and leads the membership team for the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions. He also holds responsibility for AESC education programs for researchers and associates. Before joining the AESC in 2013, Patrick was an executive search consultant with a boutique firm in the higher education sector. He worked on a number of senior academic appointments in: Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Macau, China, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, the UAE, Kuwait and Pakistan. Patrick was also responsible for overseeing a team of search consultants and researchers.