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“Equality alone won’t help you win the war on talent” – Dr Naeema Pasha

More and more businesses recognise the importance of equality and are working hard to improve their diversity and inclusion strategies. But one crucial piece of the jigsaw is often missing: equity. Companies need a two-pronged approach to tap into talent at every level.

Dr Naeema Pasha

13 October 2022

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Story by
Dr Naeema Pasha, Speaker, Author & Worker: All about Future of Work - Equity, Careers, Skills & the AI leadership evolution

We all know the principle of having workplace equality, diversity and inclusion – but what is the reality?

Right now, I fear that D&I is often being left to sit quietly in HR – without, crucially, being embedded  into companies’ wider strategy.

But leaders need to know that not addressing D&I will create a leakage of good talent, reduced flow of innovation and barrier to harnessing the brilliant people that can make a business grow.

The ROI of any business does depend on its people – and if people are excluded or worse, demonised, a business cannot flourish.

One illustration of this is a story once told to me by a British Muslim Asian man who was a high flyer through education before joining one of the big four consultancy firms as part of its graduate training scheme.

So far, so good. He’s got the qualifications and personal skills, he’s landed the role with a blue chip company and, as far as he understands it, all he has to do is work hard.

However, he soon found that he unknowable, opaque, parts of his company’s culture would ultimately stymie his progress. In his case, an out-of-hours drinking culture that created the kind of conversations with, and proximity to, leaders that ultimately oiled the wheels of promotion.

He wasn’t opposed to others’ drinking but didn’t feel comfortable participating in it. But he found that even holding a non-alcoholic glass of something in his hand, he started to be pushed out of the loop and experienced negative comments upon about his faith.

And ultimately, although the man had the same experience, qualifications and work ethic as colleagues, he realised he wasn’t getting promoted at the same rate – and left the organisation.

His potential as part of the emerging generation of young talent was lost.

The opposite of an inclusive culture, we need to remember, is an exclusive culture where only a certain type of person will be welcomed.

What this does to a business is reduce its access to ideas and creativity that can fuel growth and productivity.

Whether it’s the Asian man, a disabled employee or a working mother, you get the picture.

It’s not enough to hire diverse talent into your business. It’s also critical to look at how your employees’ experiences are pushed through the lens of your culture – and how that propels some, while holding others back.

Dr Naeema Pasha looks at how AI can have positive impact on workers' skills and happiness in a pandemic world

Equity however is still widely misunderstood. A simple way to understand it is by using supermarket car parks as a starting point. Years ago, they weren’t zoned so anyone who turned up could park anywhere and make their way to the shop entrance. But then supermarkets realised some people needed more help to get to the shop doors.

Parents with small children or shoppers with disabilities might just turn around and leave if they had to park on the further outreaches of the car park. So to maximise their customer footfall, supermarkets gave those with extra challenges a helping hand.

That’s the equity effect. It’s about making sure that everyone has access not just to recruitment – but the ability to thrive once they’re in post.

I’ve been talking about this for a while now and in my previous role at the Henley School of Business, I did a large piece of research on the equity effect and found the restrictions and obstacles employees face often go unacknowledged.

But creating a culture of diversity, equity and connection for all staff means they can all contribute fully. This, in turn, improves wellbeing, engagement, retention and innovation – which all contribute to the bottom line.

Systems and structures are vital to creating a more equitable route into, and within, your company.

But what we see again and again in workplaces is a lack of recognition of the pinch points in both culture and structures.

Most companies now have a stated commitment to D&I but they’re not going any deeper. A top line thought on equality however is useless without deeper consideration of equity.

And that means looking at what happens in your processes – not just in terms of recruitment and selection, but also movement and promotion. If the equality actions don’t match with the equity practices, you won’t see the benefits of the strategy.

There is of course a moral, ethical and legal argument about equality and equity. The financial case too is also becoming ever more concrete.

McKinsey’s 2020 report Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, that built on research from 2014 and 2017, found that companies in the top-quartile for ethnic diversity outperformed those in the fourth one by 36 percent in profitability in 2019.

We know diverse teams contribute to growth, productivity and innovation. But equality must be underpinned by active work around equity – and that’s about working not just with candidates, but everyone in your organisation, particularly managers.

Whether those overseeing the careers of others think diversity is the right thing to do, a commercial imperative or simply a box to tick, practical measures must be put in place.

Working on a business-wide buy in to the importance of psychological safety to your organisation is also important. The reason many people are lost to businesses that haven’t thought through the equity piece is because they don’t feel safe enough to air their concerns.

And research tells us that psychological safety in a company – everything from employees feeling comfortable to ask for help or challenge the status quo – will make them more likely to innovate, adapt and, crucially, unlock the benefits of diversity.

All of this can only happen though when it’s cascaded down from a senior management level. Equity must be thought through and argued in a careful, nuanced, way so that all your stakeholders feel invested in it.

Passion in senior leaders certainly creates progress. People might at first not understand the necessity of your ambitions but gradually the thinking will become embedded and you will see the benefits. I’ve worked with companies ranging from Adidas, Astra Zeneca and WPP to Lloyds Bank and Deutsche Bank who have all benefited from the equity effect.

At root, this is about organisations – not individuals. The Henley research for instance found that those most discriminated against in the workplace were older black women in – surprisingly – the public sector.
Why? Because public sector organisations are less dynamic and their budgets are smaller to invest in change making. Their people are not discriminatory – but the organisation isn’t embodying the values.
And now with the war on emerging talent, the necessity to embed all this thinking is becoming ever more critical.

Generation Z, returning to workplaces after the pandemic, are quickly understanding all the benefits of being in the office, the human connection that it provides. But with humans also comes more negative behaviours – the toxic culture and negative groupthink.

We have to be empathetic that for this younger generation, work has never felt more unstable – and unnerving. The sense of secure employment has been depleted in such turbulent times, salaries are being stretched to breaking point. And so the experience that Generation Z has at work is more critical now than ever.

This is a precious moment. And for me it’s filled with the hopeful possibility that companies can seize this time to repoint and restructure their internal cultures to create open, inclusive and generative workspaces.

By carefully considering equity, alongside equality, they can achieve this.

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