Widespread focus on gender diversity need not exclude other workforce segments if organisations think differently about how they design and implement their diversity strategies.
Why do we focus so much on gender diversity? My answer to date has been that gender is seen as the highest priority and area of greatest need by the business I support. Typically, the underlying business rationale is that women comprise about half the population and nearly half the workforce (in headcount terms), so it is appropriate to devote, for now, most attention to improving gender diversity and inclusion. However, if the criterion for diversity investment centred, for example, on the segments most disempowered or marginalised, then organisations would have disability strategies and interventions that are second to none. They don’t.
Where they exist as discrete sub-functions, diversity teams are usually small. Like other HR disciplines, the diversity practitioner’s role should be one of facilitation, not ownership. Some organisations have additional diversity priorities – typically around age or culture and ethnicity, which can only be a good thing – but these rarely receive the same level of attention or investment as gender.
Managing all employees
A different approach is to structure diversity strategy and its implementation around the employee life cycle. In other words, rather than focusing on particular employee groups, organisations should examine and adapt how they manage all employees at different stages of their career.
Take recruitment as an example – If an organisation is trying to attract more female talent, why not look at how diverse talent in all its forms can be attracted? The core principle is to look for talent with a wide-angle lens and keep an open mind by preparing to consider candidates from non-traditional backgrounds. Be prepared to look further afield and in new places for talent. The same broader approach can also be applied to the employee experiences and career stages that follow.
There are a number of benefits offered by this approach, not least of which is inclusivity (which ought to be a value that diversity and HR functions role-model). When diversity strategies and initiatives are communicated to employees, individuals need not feel that the agenda is all about someone else. Perception is reality when it influences individual decisions and actions – including whether to leave or stay at an organisation. Investment in female talent should not occur at the cost of losing male talent.
Gender diversity work lends itself to tracking, reporting and targeting in a way that cannot be as easily replicated in other areas of diversity, apart from age. My experience suggests that individuals are more willing to disclose aspects of their identity and background than is often assumed, providing they know that such data will be recorded and used appropriately for a valid purpose.
Focus on one stage at a time
Of course, the challenge of not spreading effort and resources too widely and thinly remains. It is therefore unlikely that an organisation will wish or be able to address all stages of the employee life cycle at the same time. However, focusing on one or two stages at any moment doesn’t send a message that individuals or groups with one particular diversity characteristic are more important to the organisation than another.
This approach allows an organisation to target the stages that are most critical to its business or operations. For example, industries or businesses that struggle to attract diverse talent at entry levels might choose to focus on their recruitment processes. Where diversity is more robust at entry and mid-levels of an organisation but is not reflected in the leadership echelons, the ways in which the talent pipeline is built and utilised may be an appropriate focus.
Where pay equity is a concern, the way performance is evaluated and linked to reward may require disproportionate attention than other elements of the life cycle for a time. For businesses that need to downsize, managing career transitions constructively and equitably ought to be an essential focus.
An important practical benefit of the life cycle approach to diversity is that for each stage there is one or more people processes, each of which will have a ‘process owner’. So, if the goal of progressing an organisation’s diversity agenda involves integrating diversity best practice into people policy, process design and application, the HR colleague who manages that process should be a key stakeholder and collaborator. Similarly, HR business partners will be essential to ensuring that policies and processes play out effectively in the reality of the workplace.