First of all, let’s be clear about one thing: Pursuing diversity in one’s organization isn’t a charity project. It is not an equal opportunities or integration project when a woman from an ethnic minority becomes an executive. Diversity is a necessity. Because without diversity, we create teams of people who think too similarly and therefore make bad decisions that alienate the company's products and services from consumers (RAO & Tilt, 2016). But how can we actively work toward greater diversity?
Diversity creates better organizations
The benefits of diversity for businesses is something we are seeing over and over again these days. Studies by McKinsey from the last seven years show that companies with greater diversity are both more profitable and competitive (Diversity wins, 2020).
The organization's employer brand is also affected by the success of diversity. The modern workplace must be inclusive and diversified if it wants to attract the best candidates and secure its image externally. A candidate study from 2020 shows that 83% of younger generations in the labor market value diversity and inclusion as an important aspect in choosing their workplace.
Gender distribution in Danish companies
In Denmark, we often talk about gender distribution when discussing diversity. But diversity is about much more than gender. It includes the more sensitive types of diversity, which can be difficult to collect data on, such as religion, ethnicity, political persuasion, socio-economic background and sexuality. But it can also be of a less sensitive nature, such as age, seniority, education and experience.
If we in Denmark focus primarily on gender distribution, it’s mainly because the distribution is so obviously skewed. For example, an article from February 2022 in the newspaper Børsen found that, of the 50 largest executive boards in Denmark, there were only three female CEOs. Women account for 21% of the executive management, often as HR manager. Only 14% of the finance directors are women. In addition to being clearly skewed, gender is also simpler to collect data on, unlike other forms of diversity. However, gender distribution is also an excellent place to start, because when we examine and understand what prevents a good gender balance, we also understand what stands in the way of other forms of diversity (Ottsen & Muhr, 2021).
But women’s mere access to the board room, will not automatically solve the problems that come from excess homogeneity. Women are just as subject to bias as men.
Data has been collected by Ennova from 64 companies with almost 100,000 employees in total.
The figure shows the gender distribution of the employees, by male and female leaders respectively, depending on whether the leader’s superior is male or female.
The graph clearly shows that it is not a purely male trait to favor your own gender. It is a HUMAN trait. It is safe and easy to recruit and collaborate with someone who looks like you. In terms of type. Gender. Age. Ethnicity. We are all subject to these biases. They will always be there, and research has shown that training in bias is not enough to remove it (Dobbin & Kaley, 2018). The solution to the diversity problem is therefore not to become more knowledgeable about different types of bias or to attend regular courses. But what can we do?
Diversify through recruitment and training of constructive conflicts
Of course, you can’s just replace 20% of male staff with female staff from one day to the next. Therefore, a large part of the diversity challenge is just as much a long-term recruitment task. But if the diversity created through more bias-conscious recruitment is to create the desired value, the organization must also be trained in psychological safety and constructive conflict. Each employee must feel confident in being able to express their opinion and teams must be able to disagree. Both recruitment and the more corporate culture track can benefit from continuous data collection.
What data shows
The paradox in creating diversity in recruitment is that we want more diversity, but the bias that prevents greater diversity is largely invisible to us. Here, data from recruitment processes can illuminate several blind spots. For example, data can provide answers to questions such as:
- What is the gender distribution at different levels of the organization?
- How many are internally recruited as opposed to externally recruited?
- What is the gender distribution in recruitment? – the distribution of applicants, in interviews and recruitment?
- What is the gender distribution in the recruitment committees?
- What other diversity data can you collect? For example, age, education background and nationality?
When this data is available, we can become curious about where in the organization more diversity needs to be created, and especially where in the recruitment process, gender differences begin to arise.
Less bias in recruitment
If data show that the percentage of internally recruited women is too low, work must be done to create better career opportunities, mentoring and talent development for women in the organization.
If data show that there are not enough women or men looking for specific types of job, then checking whether the wording of the job proposals appeals more to men or women is an obvious place to start. For example, more female applicants can be attracted by replacing the word “competent” with “qualified”. It can be difficult to spot these bias nuances in the language, but in fact software, such as develop Miscellaneous, exists that can screen posts and attract applicants other than those you typically attract.
If data show that the candidates invited for a job interview do not represent sufficient diversity, it is possible to reduce the bias of the employment committee by removing the candidates’ name, gender, age and photo in the selection process. Several psychological experiments have shown that our choices are less biased if we do not know the gender on the applicant (Ottsen & Muhr, 2021).
As the examples show, data can point to where in the recruitment process to take action to create a better recruitment process.
If the benefits of diversity are to be brought to light, constructive conflict is needed
We all just want to get along. And very few of us can truthfully say we never shy away from conflict. But to benefit from diversity, the harmony we strive for needs to be challenged. If women and others who represent diversity are merely part of the power culture that already exists, then women can just as easily as men reproduce the rigid self-understanding that decisions are based on. Diversity must therefore not only be created by people with different backgrounds, but also supported by efforts that strengthen psychological security, constructive conflict and curiosity about different perspectives. It can rattle the pleasant harmony, but without it, diversity has no purpose.
As in recruitment contexts, data can be the key to understanding where in the organization more work is needed. Many of the employee engagement surveys that exist examine in different ways how cooperation and psychological safety are at the heart of the matter. If cooperation gets top scores from the employees’ perspective, it may be a good idea to ask yourself if this harmony is the result of too much homogeneity?
It is also important to examine whether employees feel they are heard, taken seriously and are comfortable in expressing their personal views and opinions.
It is not possible to train away your biases, but it is possible to train curiosity on different perspectives and to seek out good conflict. This can be trained at all levels of the organization – in teams as well as management groups. There must be an insistence on seeing things from several angles, and you can ask each other:
- “Why do we agree now?”
- “Who in our organization will contradict us and why?”
- “How could this be a bad idea/decision/action?”
Give diversity the best conditions
The challenges of diversity and gender distribution are an area of great concern, and every day we are learning more about what efforts are needed to bring about positive change. Bias is and remains an obstacle to diversity and more bias-conscious recruitment is therefore an important step. But recruitment isn’t enough on its own. It must be supplemented by continuous training of curiosity on the perspectives and attitudes of others, so that our fixed assumptions are challenged and our decision-making basis improved.
This article first appeared in the April 2022 issue of HR Chefen published by DANSK HR.
Dobbin, Frank, and Kalev, Alexandra. “Why Doesn’t Diversity Training Work? The Challenge for Industry and Academia.” Anthropology Now 10.2 (2018): 48–55.
Fuller, Pamala & Murphey, Mark. 2020. The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias – How to Reframe Bias, Cultivate Connection, and Create High-Performing Teams. Simon & Schuster.
Muhr, Sara Louise & Ottsen, Christina Lundgaard. 2021. Bias-Conscious Management – Introduce Diversity and Make Better Decisions. Djøf Forlag
Rao, K., Tilt, C. Board Composition and Corporate Social Responsibility: The Role of Diversity, Gender, Strategy and Decision-Making. J Bus Ethics 138, 327–347 (2016).
Børsen. February 10, 2022. “Women lead HR, while men become senior executives”
McKinsey: Diversity wins: How inclusion matters, 2020