Re-designing diversity: from shortfalls to success

In the modern world of work, diversity continues to be one of the most salient issues for hiring managers and leadership teams. With very little empirical evidence to suggest a series of best practices, it is a challenge that requires serious investment, with ongoing research, experimentation and feedback.

The current state of play shows there is still plenty to be done. When it comes to gender diversity, women make up 9.7% of executives in FTSE 100 companies 1 and only 16% of executive committees at FTSE 350 companies — a figure that hasn’t changed since 2016.2 In the same year, the government-backed Hampton-Alexander review set a target for a third of UK-based board positions to be held by women in 2020. As it currently stands, companies would need to appoint women to 40% of board positions over the next two years to meet this.

The picture isn’t much clearer for black and minority ethnic (BAME) diversity. The McGregor-Smith Review, released in 2017, found that one in eight of the working age population had a BME background, but these individuals made up just 10% of the workforce and only 6% of top management positions. 3 Meanwhile, the Parker Review, a government-commissioned report into ethnic diversity of UK boards, found more than half of FTSE 100 companies has no ethnic minorities on the board, and only six had someone of an ethnic minority in the position of chairman or CEO.

The benefits of establishing a diverse workplace are undisputed — in addition to boosting the UK economy by £24 billion a year, a multi-faceted workforce has also been shown to improve engagement and productivity, encourage creativity and lead to a more innovative working environment. With so many positive outcomes, why is diversity still such a huge challenge for modern workplaces?

The first complication lies in the simplification of the concept.

“It’s not enough to want diversity. Every team, office and business needs to decide why diversity is going to help them improve and go from there,” says Simon Fanshawe OBE, co-founder of consultancy, Diversity by Design.

For Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity and Belonging at software giant Atlassian, the term doesn’t do enough to represent the issue as a whole.

“I’m actually not a fan of the word ‘diversity’. According to Atlassian’s research, people associate the word ‘diversity’ with people who come from underrepresented backgrounds, rather than being about everyone,” she says.

“According to Atlassian’s 2018 State of Global Diversity & Inclusion Report, 68% of tech workers in the U.K. identify women as an important part of the diversity discussion, but the drop off is steep for other groups (and severe for identities in majority groups).”

This unintended exclusion of certain identities from the conversation is a key contributor to a lack of progress in representation: “Businesses should strive to create teams with a balance of perspectives — which is strongly influenced by our identities and life experience,” says Aubrey.

Simon agrees, noting that organisations need to value the difference people can bring: “Research says high-performing teams work because they have an ability to encompass and embrace difference and set new norms of ways of working,” he says.

In fact, it is these situations that positive diversity results, or diversity dividends, come about. Scott E. Page, a University of Michigan professor in complex systems and political science argues that “when solving problems, diversity may matter as much, or even more than, individual ability.”

With this in mind, diversity initiatives need to go beyond quotas and broad policies.

“Good intentions are not enough. Leaders have to see the value in the process, but research tells us we can’t re-educate, but re-design processes,” Simon says.

“Creating a new norm is fundamentally important to the ways we change our behaviours.”

At Atlassian, the concept is ingrained into their mission, with each employee expected to contribute according to their role. Taking a data-informed approach, they measure, experiment, learn and iterate, and where possible, share these findings with the global tech industry, recognizing that it’s an industry-level problem that requires broad solutions.

“We’ve pioneered a team-level approach to measuring workforce diversity, and have used those insights to drive a greater sense of belonging amongst our global workforce,” says Aubrey.

One particular win was a growth in technical female hires in entry-level graduate roles to 57% in two years, as well as an increase of overall hiring of women in technical roles to 18%. To do this, Aubrey and her team deployed a number of strategies.

“First, we created branding that appealed to a broader variety of candidates. Our Talent Brand Team updated our careers site to include a more balanced set of Atlassians, and highlighted a more inclusive set of perks and benefits that appealed to people at different points in their life, like career growth opportunities, comprehensive healthcare, and emergency backup childcare,” says Aubrey.

“These changes made most people coming to the site feel like they recognized not only themselves, but the type of activities, social occasions, and work settings they wanted to work in.” she continues.

The second element was to re-examine the requirements of a role.

“According to Hewlett Packard, the majority of women won’t apply for jobs unless they think they meet all the criteria posted. However, most men will apply even if they only meet 60% of listed requirements.”

“We now write job advertisements with requirements as the lowest barrier to entry, instead of a wish list for a magical unicorn,” continues Aubrey.

For Simon, re-designing the recruitment process away from requirements is essential to encouraging diverse mindsets.

“Most diversity work that goes on doesn’t involve enough re-design. When hiring or promoting, businesses need to think very hard about what the team or group is trying to achieve,” he says.

“From there, they need to establish the criteria they want to hire against and question these rigorously. They also need to consider why they are wanting to diversify and what kind of diversity would make their ability to achieve that goal better.”

This process will ensure that potential candidates are chosen on essential criteria alone, rather than any unconscious bias.

One of the other ways businesses can eliminate this bias is through AI. Atlassian has also found success with Textio, an augmented writing platform that helps them identify the highest-impact language in their job ads and highlights subtly gendered works within their copy.

With all this in mind, where do businesses go from here? For Simon, it’s not about shifting thinking, but acknowledging that unconscious bias exists and creating new norms that remove the need to make decisions that encourage bias.

“Research tells us we can’t re-educate out of these decisions but we have to re-design processes.”

He encourages businesses to reject the idea of culture fit and instead bank on individualities: “The new norms come from a combination of difference and that’s where you get the dividends from diversity.”

“The most interesting thing about other people is how they are different from you, not how they are the same.” Simon finishes.

For Aubrey, the objective is simple: “The ultimate goal is to build a balanced team, in terms of skill and ability as well as varied life experiences and knowledge people bring to the table.”

This piece is the fourth in the series: ‘Make your working life exceptional: a guide to creating a better workplace.’ Read part one about mental health here, part two about flexible working here and part three about workplace design here. For more on diversity, click here.


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