Diversity beyond Tokenism : why being politically correct doesn’t help anyone with Swati Jena

What does diversity really bring to business and how can we normalise this conversation?Are we asking the right questions and do we measure it meaningfully ? 

Swati and I have a rich and insightful discussion on stepping out of being politically correct, and coming from a place of enquiry and curiosity. We need to ask the right questions, speak more boldly and really take on board the fundamental concepts of inclusion and diversity, and what they mean for today’s institutions, corporates and communities. We discuss the role of education, research and corporates to create a common platform and psychological safety for discussion – it will be full of opportunities but also beliefs, fears, assumptions and spiky conversations. We need big ideas to inspire curiosity; and we must all admit when we know we don’t know. The presence of diversity alone is not enough to create inclusion and performance – D & I needs to be CEO led and a core part of every business strategy and culture change roadmap. 

Swati shares the insights and experience from her work both in corporates and as an entrepreneur, and research from her recent book – Diversity beyond tokenism. 

The main insights from this episode are :

  • Does diversity help business? It is taken as a given, but how do we measure it? What kind of diversity is needed? Diversity for a start-up is different from diversity for a large company, for example, and this requires authentic and honest discussion. Gender equality is currently at odds with most organisations, which have male mindsets; we must invest aggressively in the female workforce.
  • This is the first book on a complex topic that poses questions that are not readily asked and for which there are no easy answers. Diversity has many themes and moving parts and this book aims to bring everything together, highlight the paradox, be truthful, politically respectful and offer objective analysis of the problem. 
  • The issue of privilege is likewise important. What does/will privilege look like? What are its boundaries? Affirmative action requires an outcome and an end point and can become toxic if it is not transparent. There is often good intent, but it is couched in a hushed manner.
  • Being ‘equal’ is not the same as understanding inclusion. Just as also absolute equality is not the same as equity. ‘Playing the diversity card’ is applied both correctly and incorrectly. Any type of ‘card’ is important and represents societal/historical wrongs that need to be rectified. This is not just a problem for corporations, but for society and government too.
  • Where are the gaps? Where/why do people feel they need to ‘play the card’ (gender, race, etc.)? There are tools for reframing the issue. Fixing the minority (e.g. women) is not fixing the environment. And who is trying to fix what? Are men trying to fix women? Does anybody need fixing? It is often about stereotypes and the balance of power. 
  • The notion of sampann means ‘complete in all qualities’ and is applied to women in India. It asserts that women are more resilient, perfectionists, feel inadequate, don’t speak up, feel guilty, etc. We need a completely different balance that brings more equality to the workplace. (Returning) mothers are often the focus of any gender initiative but what about single women, for example? This overlooks an entire demographic group. 
  • The rhetoric for ‘equality’ is almost exclusively centred around women. We need to change the rules at home and at work and raise men differently, but the focus must shift to men too. We should look at human beings in general as a research base; not all women are the same and not all men are the same.
  • Unconscious bias training takes up much of D&I spend. Can training correct deep-rooted bias? No. It’s bigger than leaders and companies but must be addressed, starting with teaching and learning in childhood/society.
  • The fundamentals of D&I do not change. SMEs must be involved in dialogue, not just Fortune 500 representation. We must build communities and look at how to construct roles – job descriptions are often written to exclude and not include people. 
  • A blanket approach to bias assumes that underprivileged groups have bias, but everyone has bias. We must look at bias through an inclusive lens. Gender stereotypical roles exist and are unlikely to change for several decades. Truths exist and bias is therefore not incorrect, but it requires objectivity to discuss it openly. 
  • We need a common platform and psychological safety for discussion – it will be full of opportunities but also beliefs, fears, assumptions and spiky conversations. We need big ideas to inspire curiosity; and we must all admit when we know we don’t know.  
  • The presence of diversity alone is not enough – we need processes to actively incorporate thought diversity. Diversity must be CEO-led and seen as part of the core business strategy for which leaders must create the right culture for implementation.

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