Monaz Todywalla
Jan 24, 2022

Let’s move beyond the simplistic ‘business case’ for DEI

There’s far more at stake here and leaders need to demonstrate they know the importance of moving beyond mandates, says the CEO of PHD India.

Monaz Todywalla
Monaz Todywalla

Nothing disruptive ever came easy – movements that changed the world, public policy that changed the meaning of human rights, awareness that reshaped society’s way of thinking. None of it ever came easy.

Global movements for change continue to transform our idea of what individual identity means, what race, religion, language and colour signify – what is culturally relevant and important, what is holding us back, what is liberating us, and what we need to reinterpret. Change is taking place on a massive scale, and the world is waking up slowly but surely to everything limiting.

But, none of this came easy.

Yet, if we were to go by diversity ratios and corporate statistics on certain handpicked parameters, so much of it seems easy. Perhaps because none of it is really happening? Because transformation on paper isn’t translating into evolution in boardrooms, in offices, in sales conferences, on factory floors.

Fulfilling mandates is the easy way out

Labour laws and norms across the globe dictate the exact percentage of underrepresented sections that should make up an organization and ultimately the larger workforce. Now, this is essential because unfortunately in many cases, companies need mandates to even begin to prioritize inclusion. However, this is not the ultimate solution or the end of the road by any means. In fact, just going by numbers can often lead to underrepresented sections of society being confined to the lower rungs of the ladder, often hired in the name of a diversity mandate without being given genuine, equal opportunities to grow and flourish. What’s the point of having a ‘diverse’ workforce that comprises only privileged sections in the C-suite, but has a large pool of women, LGBTQ+ members and minority communities in junior positions? What good does it do to promote diversity when everyone in a decision-making position thinks the same way?

A glimpse into a Gartner survey from last year will explain just why this is a symptom of a larger, deeper problem. This study reported that a majority of talent managers claim only 10% or fewer of their company’s successors were women from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. And if one thinks that DE&I being a buzzword is enough, then here’s a startling factoid: In another survey, it was found that 90% of HR leaders feel their company is either ineffective or neutral about diverse representation.  

In a world where the status quo is upheld due to inequality, decision-makers often believe that equality is the answer. But equality assumes that everyone’s challenges and experiences are the same, which is far from reality. For people who come from generations of privilege, their vast networks and access to resources mean that opportunities are easier to come by. For those just making it out of centuries of oppressive systems, the race is that much more gruelling. To sum it up, equality can’t do much if the odds are unequal.

Diversity in leadership is just one step of many

Building on the concept of equity, the key behind true inclusion is not to be blind to differences, but rather to acknowledge differences without using them as a means to judge people’s competence, skill or intellect, while also understanding that the hurdles they face are starkly in contrast to those faced by others. The challenges faced by minority sections are, more often than not, systemic in nature, and this is an extremely important distinction to make.

When it comes to leadership, if you have a homogenous group that is responsible for making key and critical choices for the entire organization, there will be no one to question decisions that may be backed by prejudice or quite simply, ignorance. When making a business case for DE&I, leadership buy-in matters, and the sooner the C-suite understands how diversity impacts the bottom line, the better. True inclusion breeds growth, furthers innovation, boosts creativity and helps organizations constantly push the envelope on making the leap at every juncture. Greater breadth of experience, more varied perspectives, wider awareness, higher ability to think out-of-the-box, an extensive network – these are only some of the strengths that a diverse leadership team brings to the table.

In fact, the way leaders speak, behave and interact with others in the organization can make up to a 70% difference in how included individual employees feel. This sense of belonging helps boost ownership, ultimately propelling productivity and business performance. Making it to the top rungs of a company no longer rests solely on business acumen. Leaders who last are those who bring a sense of purpose to the job.

But it can’t stop there. It’s imperative for companies to ensure that inclusive policies extend beyond the top leadership to cascade across hierarchies, ultimately creating a pool of successors who are armed for the future. Your middle-management team could be the game-changers in effecting on-ground transformation.

The onus of inclusion doesn’t lie solely on under-represented groups

And that brings me to my next point. I believe we’re at a stage when we need to start thinking beyond the simplistic ‘business case’. Yes, it matters that DE&I is good for business, but there’s so much more at stake here. Globally, as a society, we’re at the cusp of a major transformation – in terms of beliefs, sensibilities, awareness and consciousness. Movements that were earlier confined to specific parts of the world are now creating ripples across continents. People are identifying in another culture what they thought were isolated struggles only they faced. In the face of alienation, discrimination and division, the world is coming together, and the corporate focus on DE&I is only one part of the whole.

Through this lens of global, ubiquitous impact, let’s once again focus on the workplace. Often, companies feel that the bare minimum of minority representation is enough. Because of this, the responsibility of ensuring that diverse groups of people feel included often falls heavily on those who belong to these groups. This makes it easy for companies to ignore the need for widespread and consistent sensitization. For instance, in an interview panel, you may have ensured that a diverse group of people is responsible for your next set of hires. However, you have left it up to the under-represented groups to focus on diversity, allowing recruiters who are less aware to continue in the same vein of talent acquisition that first created the problem. So, while representation matters enormously, what also matters is that people be trained and sensitized on what representation means and why it’s non-negotiable – not only in terms of hiring a range of diverse candidates across ranks, but also by learning how to leverage their identity-related knowledge and experiences in a way that the company can perform better. 

So, coming back to the question we began with, why is diverse representation in leadership important?

Because the onus of building the leaders of tomorrow, rests on the leaders of today.

Monaz Todywalla is the CEO of PHD India.

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