In 2009, I graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science with a master’s in gender. I’d read Judith Butler, Hélène Cixous, and Simone de Beauvoir, and I was on a mission to change the world. Yes, I was ready to work, but I wanted more; I wanted to make the office a fairer and more inclusive place.
I may have known the subject academically, but I didn’t know that the world of feminist philosophy and the realities of the modern workplace reside in different galaxies. Six years and several jobs in politics and corporate finance later, I’ve learned how to put the theory into practice as well as how to show leadership on diversity—wherever you are in your career.
1. Learn What Diversity Actually Means
A common mistake people make is to think diversity only pertains to race and gender. It’s completely understandable: Whether we’re male or female, black or white, gender and race are social characteristics we notice about each other almost immediately. Just remember, diversity also includes characteristics you may not be able to see, like disability, sexuality, and religious beliefs.
Showing leadership on diversity is about understanding, championing, and celebrating the strength that comes from having people from lots of different backgrounds in the workplace.
2. Know Your Stats
If you plan on talking about diversity in your workplace (and I hope you do), it’s helpful to have statistics to back up your argument for inclusivity. One of the most important pieces of research in the field compared the financial performance of Fortune 500 companies with the highest and lowest levels of board diversity, based on gender. It found that “on average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 53%.” That’s pretty impressive, right?
It’s also worth knowing your own company’s numbers for comparison’s sake. Just bear in mind that even when a company has a staff that’s 50% male and 50% female, that doesn’t mean it’s particularly diverse. A deeper look at the figures may show, for instance, that most the women are in administrative roles and most the men are in positions of leadership. Plus, again, gender is just one aspect of diversity, and your company could have room for improvement in other areas.
3. Share Your Story
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about making the case for diversity, it’s that numbers are an important part of any credible argument—but they aren’t enough. The research quoted above came out in 2007 and, let’s face it, years later, progress is not where it should be.
It’s stories that really change hearts and minds. So, share your stories with colleagues about inclusiveness in the workplace—good and bad—and ask others about their experiences too. Did you have a manager who supported you with a gradual return to work following maternity leave? How about a mentor who championed your rise to board level? Have you had a negative experience with harmful language, inappropriate humor, or noticing a lack of advancement for certain groups of people?
Sharing these stories is critical, because they help create a narrative about what a business culture that supports diversity will (and won’t) look like. Don’t be shy about sharing your stories with managers too—but choose a moment when they’ll be receptive. The day before you publish your annual results is out! But a company retreat, a review of hiring processes, or a revamping of benefits packages might be the perfect opportunity to share anecdotes about what works.
4. Be a Good Manager
Don’t just strive to be a good boss, work to be a boss who supports your employees’ unique needs. For example, some people may find that a different work schedule helps them meet the demands of work and home life. Make sure you know all of your company leave policies so that when a subordinate comes to you with an issue you can offer solutions. Whether it’s a parent who needs a flexible schedule or someone requesting time off for a religious holiday, you should aim to run a department that is accommodating.
If the company policy doesn’t fit the needs of your employee, be an advocate for him or her with your human resources department. Discuss with the higher-ups how more flexibility could help you attract new and different candidates. (This is a great conversation to put your stats and stories to use.)
Finally, work with your employees. If a parent needs to leave at 4 PM three days a week to collect his or her children from daycare, try and make it work. (For example, can the extra work be made up at home?) Managers who are open to less conventional working arrangements earn the kind of loyalty from employees that money can’t buy. Those who grumble or make the process arduous will lose good people to the businesses that are willing to make an effort.
5. Be a Mentor
Yes, the word mentor is tossed around all the time. But if you’re senior—a C-level employee or director—you likely have significant influence. Influence you can use to help someone in a junior role at your company.
Keep in mind: You don’t have to mentor someone who matches your race, gender, or sexuality. In my experience, partnering with someone who doesn’t share identical social characteristics may increase your understanding about what it’s like to come from a different background and work in your field. Yes, you may learn as much from your mentee as he or she learns from you.
Diversity is critical for innovation, productivity, and profit. And people in leadership roles have a crucial role to play in changing the make-up of our workforce. But creating an inclusive company culture involves everyone—from the newest admin assistant to the seasoned senior manager. And with stats, stories, good management, and mentorship, there’s a way for employees of every level to show leadership on diversity.