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Sheree Atcheson


Global Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Peakon

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Diversity, equality and inclusion: Taking a data-driven approach that addresses intersectionality

We need to get specific when tackling DE&I. For real change to occur, leaders need to be deliberate and specific in the strategies they implement. 

The past decade has seen the terms diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) cemented in the public, political and businesses agendas. Over this period people have steadily become more aware of bias, systemic racism, and intersectionality, and we’ve seen some moves to tackle these at organisational and policy levels.

Data is – and will continue to be – the key to truly understanding the varying challenges faced by different groups, and developing effective DE&I initiatives to combat these. 

The globalisation of the Black Lives Matter movements last year provided fresh impetus. It shone renewed light on inequality and encouraged people to do more to call-out prejudices in our workplaces and institutions.  

Within this context, employers have an opportunity to advance transformational change and create more diverse, equitable and inclusive organisations. Successfully seizing this, however, will depend on them being deliberate in their actions, and specific in their data analysis.  

Why so many DE&I initiatives fail

There are many reasons why all too often DE&I initiatives fail. Chief among them is the overly broad approach that many organisations take.

Just look at some of the initiatives taken to try and improve gender equality in the workplace. They have repeatedly viewed women as one, monolithic group, ignoring the numerous contextual factors, like race, sexuality and class that contribute to a woman’s identity and workplace experience. Black women will face very different challenges to white women, for example, and therefore require different support structures.

The common result of this generalisation is that the main beneficiaries of gender equality initiatives are those who need them the least – non-disabled, heterosexual, financially privileged white women. Take a recent CNN headline as an example. This stated that the US economy lost 140,000 jobs in December 2020 – all of them held by women. While clearly a damning statistic in its own right, further investigation revealed that these jobs were actually all held by black and Latino women. White women made significant gains.

This instance demonstrates the importance of being specific – if we’re not, we risk missing the opportunity for truly progressive discussion, and leaving the problems faced by different categories of women ignored and unaddressed.  

Why BAME is a problematic term

The issue with broad categorisations extends beyond gender. The drive for racial equality is also mired by overly general terms, with BAME a prime example. While this certainly has its uses in certain conversations, DE&I initiatives targeted at BAME individuals miss a fundamental point: the issues faced by black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups will vary hugely. It’s therefore inappropriate and unproductive to group these people into one homogenous identity.

Take myself as an example; being an adopted Irish woman of South East Asian descent means that I have faced my own set of struggles in my career. These will be very different to the struggles faced by a black man, for example.

Delve into data

Data is – and will continue to be – the key to truly understanding the varying challenges faced by different groups, and developing effective DE&I initiatives to combat these. By analysing trends in hiring or promotions data, employers can see straight away whether they’re demonstrating preference to a particular group of people. This data-driven approach ensures that inherent biases are recognised and can be called out.

Collecting and analysing data is just the first step, however, in a long process. Businesses must then use these insights to carve out a bespoke strategy and assess what is working well, and what needs to change. For example, if they find that their hiring numbers are skewed towards individuals from similar backgrounds, they need to look at ways to challenge and call out biases in hiring managers, widen the recruitment net, and diversify applicants.

It’s imperative that organisations then use data to measure the impact of their DE&I initiatives. This goes beyond tracking whether or not a more diverse group of people is being brought into and promoted up the business. Employers need to consistently listen to their employees and hear the concerns voiced by different communities. There are tools available that give all employees the opportunity to give anonymous feedback on DE&I initiatives. These tools can also enable employees to volunteer demographic information, which gives employers a clear, real-time view of how different groups are being supported by their organisation.

This data helps us to see more than the impact of gender or race alone on the workplace experience. Looking at statistics on a deeper level enables employers to see the effects of intersectionality, and understand how multiple biases are impacting the employee experience for many.

Now is the time for action

There have been several positive policy-led initiatives to foster equality in UK workplaces. Mandatory gender pay gap reporting was a significant step forward, and it looks increasingly likely that we’ll see similar measures introduced to expose and tackle ethnicity pay gaps. Organisations cannot wait to be told what to do, however. They need to proactively make the changes their employees want to see and adopt the right technology to drive this.  

Creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce isn’t just morally right; it makes business sense too. A 2020 report by Mckinsey, for example, found that the businesses in the top-quartile for diversity outperformed their competitors by 36% in profitability. Businesses will only benefit from such competitive advantages, however, if they’re able to create an inclusive organisation, where everyone feels heard and understood. Diversity without inclusion is fruitless.

The road towards a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace is long, and while we continue to make strides down this, there is always more to be done. If business leaders want to develop and deliver successful DE&I initiatives that help diverse groups feel more engaged in their organisation, they must get specific. They need to deliberately listen to all employees and analyse the wealth of data available to them. Entrenched issues won’t be solved overnight, but if leaders want to make strategic and sustainable progress, being deliberate and specific is the best place to start.

Interested in this topic? Read Equality, diversity and inclusion: why HR needs to take centre stage.

Author Profile Picture
Sheree Atcheson

Global Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Peakon

Read more from Sheree Atcheson

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