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How Diverse is Diversity & Inclusion?

originally posted on Dee's LinkedIn

When we speak about Diversity & Inclusion (D&I), we talk about underrepresentation and minority groups – usually relative to what society deems as the default. By default, this typically means a White (cisgender, heterosexual) male. The term default is icky and loaded, but lacking a better one for now, it does the job.

So many organisations are more concerned with being ‘seen’ to make a difference in terms of D&I (which is markedly different to doing the real, tough work) that dare I say it, to show they are making progress and breaking down barriers, they hire leaders for the D&I function that represent the very opposite of the default I describe above. Speaking bluntly, I mean hiring Black women – what could be more opposite to a White man?

As I type this, I wince. This could sound like an attack to discredit the Black women who rightly deserve their positions as well as their visibility. As a group who have been oppressed in ways we cannot fathom, anything that lifts and empowers them has to be a positive thing. So, I’m not questioning the individuals themselves, I’m questioning the diversity of the very pool that is responsibility for promoting D&I – and importantly the decision makers who hire for these roles. Why couldn’t there be a bias in hiring decisions for senior Diversity roles, when we know it exists elsewhere?

Where’s the evidence you say? The biggest brands on the planet (think: Uber, Nike, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Bloomberg and Pinterest) all have Black woman in these roles. Granted they are based in the US which is a different context, but it made me curious about the diversity of the function itself at the very top, given the significant impact and influence these roles can have in furthering progress.

What I’ve learnt from my own D&I work is that you have to confront and challenge your assumptions – and being data driven is the way to do this, to negate ‘gut feel’ and to find objectivity.

I looked at 4 data sets:

  1. The most senior D&I person at each FTSE 30 company in July

  2. The most senior D&I person for the Top 10 largest charities by income, as well as the Top 5 by brand value

  3. The most senior D&I person for the 10 largest public sector employers

  4. The speaker line-up for 4 of the biggest D&I conferences (as publicised in July)

My Findings*

Given the US context in relation to race and diversity, I can see a pattern emerging that indicates the hiring of Black women to these roles. I can only reflect on why this may be, but my hypothesis is that it's borne of many factors, not least the talent of these exceptional woman but also the workplace context in a country that is going through unprecedented times and attacks on human rights by the Trump administration.

The UK was a completely different proposition. I’ll start with the conferences.

These initial findings weren’t conclusive, but instinctively, I was surprised at the lack of racial diversity for some of the conferences. It wasn’t until I looked at the other data sets that things became really interesting.

  • 71% of senior D&I roles were held by women

  • 67% of these roles were held by White people

  • People of Colour accounted for 17% of all roles, of which only 1 was a man. Of the 10 women in this category, only 2 were Black (3.5%)

  • With an intersectional lens, White women were the dominant demographic with 52% of senior D&I roles held by this group (with particularly high representation in the charity and public sector)

  • White men were most represented in the private sector

*There is a caveat to this in that I based my conclusion on visible characteristics only (which means I may be wrong in some of these cases), but even still – my mind was blown!


Firstly, my perception was incorrect – I’m happy to admit that. That the dominant group in terms of senior D&I hires in the UK being White women is a double-edged sword. Gender equality has rightly come into focus and legislation such as the Gender Pay Gap has focused the mind in taking swift action.

The problem is that efforts relating to gender equality have tended to benefit White women as there is still significant underrepresentation for women of colour in the most senior roles. Just have a look in most organisations to see that D&I often lacks intersectionality. As an example, the fastest growing wage gap in the US is actually between White women and women of colour.

The other issue about gender alone is it prevents us talking about the *really* hard stuff; women make up half the population so it’s a safer subject to tackle. Race is hard. Sexuality is hard. These go beyond the workplace as history tells us the way these groups have been treated is problematic at best.

I'm not saying we should positively discriminate when making these hires (which is straight up illegal) nor is this about demonising the contribution of White men. Marcia Weekes (Founder, Marchfield Human Capital Solutions) sums it up perfectly when she shared her thoughts on this subject ‘we need to include White men in the discussion and engage them – surely this is what inclusion is!’. Damn right it is! She and I agreed that positive discrimination was not acceptable, but had a (friendly, yet) robust debate on ensuring the ‘best’ candidate was placed in the role, the problem with the term ‘best candidate’ and the need to ensure a wider pool of ‘best’ candidates was tapped into and developed.

We can all make a contribution, but the D&I profession in the UK needs to hold itself to account and look at its own diversity, to role model the very changes it wishes to represent. By way of example, I’m amazed that people of an Asian background in these roles are almost invisible given that they make up 6.9% of the population across the UK and 18.4% in London (where most of these organisations are headquartered). We simply have to do better.

'We must be the change in the world we wish to see’ - said by Gandhi, not me.


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