Workplace Culture

The Decade in Diversity and Inclusion: How Much Progress Did We Make?

By Raafi-Karim Alidina, Stephen Frost

Dec. 22, 2019

From a diversity and inclusion perspective, this has been a tumultuous decade. There has clearly been an increase in conversation about moving the dial on D&I, but how much has really changed?

It’s easy to feel discouraged when women make up only 17 percent of executives in consulting, 15 percent in financial services, and 11 percent in tech. However, increased advocacy, laws and pressure addressing this problem has begun to make changes. The proportion of women on boards of the FTSE 100 has increased from 12.5 percent in 2010 to 32.4 percent in 2019.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The biggest areas where things have changed are our understanding of bias and discrimination and the way people are thinking about D&I.

Ten years ago, the words “unconscious bias” were only heard in academic circles. Now, they are common parlance. The term “psychological safety” was only used in academic journals in 2010, but now C-suite executives discuss its importance. These examples show an incredible increase in our understanding of why inclusion problems persist in the workplace.

Perhaps the biggest change comes from the very reasons organizations are doing D&I work in the first place. A decade ago, most organizations were approaching D&I from a compliance-driven approach that focused on ensuring the company was meeting all requirements it was legally obligated to. This “Diversity 101” approach was about attaining a minimum, not adding value.

As social consciousness around D&I increased, many organizations moved to a “Diversity 2.0” approach. They recognized that consumer markets look very different than they might have even 10 years ago and that consumers want to respect the values of the organizations they buy from. Putting diversity at the center of a major ad campaign is a good signal to these diverse populations that businesses understand these needs.

But as we close out the decade, some organizations have realized when these ad campaigns are not backed up by concrete action, it can create a feeling of inauthenticity. This can make the dominant group feel good about themselves but make the minority group they are trying to attract even more cynical. That gap in marketing versus reality is stark, and people notice. It causes a credibility gap that can make things worse in the eyes of the public.

As a result, businesses have found real success by using the “Inclusion 3.0” approach. This is where diversity and inclusion initiatives are not something done on the side, but rather are a key aspect of the way they do business.

Inclusive thinking is embedded in all the decisions they make, creating the conditions for a more organic increase in diversity in the company and a more inclusive environment that makes everyone thrive and work together more productively.

This change in perspective is also affecting new technologies. In the last decade, advances in machine learning and AI have caused some problems in the D&I space. Algorithms are created by human programmers, so everything the machine learns is imbued with their biases. One famous example is how object-detection systems in self-driving cars are better at detecting light skin than dark skin, a phenomenon discovered by Georgia Tech researchers in early 2019.

However, this technology has also become much cheaper. Thus, as we become more aware of how bias affects AI, we are more easily able to rectify its problems. In the case of self-driving cars, companies like Tesla and Uber have been able to adapt their platforms to completely change the way their cars detect objects in a short time for a relatively low cost.

Moreover, we are seeing the advent of tech products that actually help mitigate our biases. Textio is one example. It uses machine learning to help us understand what words and phrases in job descriptions are more or less biased toward applicants of different genders.

As tech becomes cheaper and easier to use, and as our awareness of our own biases and how they affect our work and technology increases, we can become increasingly innovative in how to mitigate our biases in day-to-day life. While at times it may seem that little progress has been made when we look at the numbers, in reality the change in consciousness around D&I is a much more substantive change.

We may have backlash to this progress, coming in the forms of political crises around the globe, but the conversation has clearly changed. As such, we can look to the next decade with optimism.

Raafi-Karim Alidina is an associate of Frost Included, a consultancy that works with HR professionals to help them embed inclusion in their decision making.

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