Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives have become increasingly important for organizations across the globe as we realize their impact on recruitment and retention. “Simply put, reinforcing robust DEI programs helps every employee to show up each day without fear of being their true selves. This fosters higher degrees of engagement, productivity, and innovation that contribute to increased revenue.” (15five) With regard to recruitment, evidence indicates that potential employees will research companies’ DEI practices before taking a job. A survey from Glassdoor found that 76% of job seekers said a diverse workforce was important when evaluating potential employers.
In this article, The WICT Network spoke with three chapter leaders about the increased emphasis on DEI, how leaders can support an increasingly diverse staff, and some possible challenges ahead. Read on to learn how these leaders stay on top of developments in DEI and more.
Importance of DEI to Employees
“Diversity, equity, and inclusion are mutually reinforcing principles within an organization. A focus on diversity alone is insufficient because an employee’s sense of belonging (inclusion) and experience of fairness (equity) are critically important.” (15five)
“I’m so glad that equity and inclusion are now part of the conversation, because for a long time it was just diversity,” says Jamelia Smith, Vice President of The WICT Network: Southeast Chapter and Sr. Manager, Program Management for Cox Communications.
Smith notes that as inclusion became more and more incorporated into diversity programs, the narrative became “we’re different, but as long as our opinions both matter, that’s good.” Equity, according to Smith, is vital because it establishes a level playing field that removes barriers for everyone.
Sharon Prince, Director of Membership TN for The WICT Network: Southeast Chapter and Project Manager 2 for Comcast, agrees and says that workplace DEI allows her to truly be herself.
“It means that now I’m able, regardless of what I look like and demographics and cultural backgrounds, to be invited into these closed rooms where I can bring my skillset to the forefront,” Prince explains. “We’re not all there yet, but the train has left the station and we’re getting there. This lets us know that what matters is what you bring to the table.”
The Rise of Under-Represented Voices
Being invited to the table is only part of the battle, as knowing, hearing and having differing voices is also a factor.
“I think so often as women, we show up at the table to speak, but we think that the way that we speak has to fit the way everyone else does in order for our voices to be heard. We have to change the tone, delivery and presence to be included,” Smith says. “In my version of inclusion, I get to show up as the powerful person, servant leader and the collaborator that I am, and I don’t have to be the noisiest one in the room. But when given the opportunity I can share, and people want to hear what I have to say.”
For Prince, there were factors prior to the pandemic that lead up to the rise in more individuals speaking in support of increased diversity and its importance.
“Following different movements like Black Lives Matter, you became a person who wanted to speak up and voice your opinion more, and that trickled over to the workplace, because if you don’t speak up for yourself then no one else will,” says Prince. “Those events gave people the courage and confidence to stand up and say ‘something isn’t right.’ Like Maya Angelou used to say, ‘It’s not about what you say, it’s about how you make me feel.’ Coming out of the pandemic, that means saying, ‘you make me feel this way and I’ve been suppressing it, but now I want you to be aware.’”
Going Further as a Leader
Smith classifies herself as a servant leader, one who studies and seeks to understand others first. This philosophy allows her to embrace diversity.
“The best way that I have embraced DEI with my team is treating them like individuals,” Smith explains. “I have 11 direct reports, so treating them all as individuals is a challenge, but I’ve taken the time to learn who they are instead of lumping them into one category. I think you really have to give people the benefit of the doubt and get to know who they are and appreciate those differences.”
Prince reveals that she focuses on providing equal opportunities for her team members in an effort to support and strengthen DEI at the workplace.
“I want to make sure that everyone has the same opportunities that I have, and if I can be a bridge for someone else then I can help them shine by giving them an opportunity,” Prince says. “Connections to people that you may not have known are important and welcomed. I think one of the biggest keys is being able to listen to others and not making assumptions or having biases as work – many people listen to respond instead of listening to understand. But when we listen to understand, a lot of the biases go away because you begin to empathize with one another.”
Experts advise that “if someone is consistently quiet or not participating, check in on them, also as they may feel more comfortable to share ideas in another forum. Invite the less heard voices in the room to contribute on topics where you know they have value to add and encourage in confidence with your desire to hear it.” (The GlassHammer)
Possible Challenges & Growing Pains
As diversity initiatives continue to gain in prominence within the workplace, it’s important to be aware of possible challenges and growing pains that could result.
“In some cases, many people bring too many ideas and perspectives, and as a leader you can be challenged by so many viewpoints that you might not be able to move forward and accomplish the project at hand,” says Prince. She adds, “if everyone is running on the same track, the train will get derailed because there are too many things going on at once. I think that can be difficult in the workplace when you have a highly diverse team and [leaders] need to know how to channel that into something positive.”
“There’s always going to be someone who will try to discredit another, which involves putting yourself in uncomfortable positions,” says Azriel McMillan, Membership Chair for The WICT Network: Greater Pittsburgh and Capital Analyst 2 for Comcast.
Editor’s Note: As leaders, we must take a very strategic approach to dealing with uncomfortable workplace conversations. Here is some advice from Forbes.
An Inclusive & Representational Approach
In an effort to increase diversity from a company perspective, Smith mentions the value of promoting from within and giving diverse leaders platforms to share their experiences.
“Some of those experiences will be good and some will be bad, but I think companies need to show that they are putting forth an effort to share what they’re doing, because in this job market people have a lot of choice,” says Smith.
According to McMillan, we can overcome certain perceptions by showing others why you’ve earned your place. “I think that bringing more women to the forefront who can do the job in the best way possible is a step that we and companies can take going forward,” McMillan shares.
Research supports McMillan’s point: representation matters and can impact corporate culture. In fact, a new study from Columbia Business School, Stanford University Graduate School of Business, and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business demonstrates that “positive perceptions of a female executive leader transform perceptions of women throughout the organization. Our results indicate that woman executive leaders are far more than mere tokens; these women catalyze shifts in language and culture that directly foster a more welcoming workplace for women.”
“You’re going to have to employ practices that you haven’t done before, and you have to stay the course because it takes time,” Smith adds. “Diversity is a long game, it’s something that you have to be committed to in order to see it happen.” Indeed, “Diversity, equity and inclusion are not one-and-done initiatives—they require long-term, ongoing efforts to be successful.” (Newsweek)