Why Diversity & Inclusion Has Never Been so Important

We’re far from reaching diversity, equity and inclusion 😦

The 2020 Global Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum shows that at the current rate of progress, Europe won’t reach gender parity for 50 years, and it will take 100-150 years in North America.


As noted by theBoardlist, Companies Are All Talk, Little Action on Board Diversity Goals. Executives say they want diversity but are reluctant to make hard choices. “The reality is that boards are looking for people who have had previous board experience,” one said. “This criterion is a conundrum since historically board members haven’t been diverse.”

BCG explains The Real Reason Diversity Is Lacking at the Top. Well done BCG for studying your own management consulting industry and thank you for the honesty:

“Currently, the consulting industry does not appear to be aggressively tackling the root causes of weak promotion and retention rates for employees from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.”

“Consultants are sliding off the promotion track if they are unable to meet one or more of the following eight observable challenges:

  • Demonstrate analytical or problem-solving skills
  • Drive work independently, rather than wait for direction
  • Assert their own position in a case team environment
  • Ask for actionable feedback
  • Fully address feedback in a timely manner
  • Request help, rather than wait until it’s too late
  • Attract the support of an advocate or a sponsor, or both, for career progression
  • Have mentors who are willing to invest in their apprenticeship. 

Five root causes that drive all eight challenges:

  1. A weak sense of belonging
  2. Difficulty navigating professional environments
  3. The lack of a growth mindset toward development potential
  4. A subpar consulting skill set
  5. Poor mastery of consulting tools”

The case is clear that a weak sense of belonging is a greater barrier to success in highly challenging and demanding environments, such as a consulting firm. Now, the insight around the “Difficulty navigating professional environments” begs the question around education and why it doesn’t equip students in leadership and advancing their career, namely “how to build relationships that will advance their career and how to promote themselves.” I was sad to read that “support mechanisms that were already in place across the consulting ecosystem:[…] assistance in developing consulting skills and mastering tools—essentially the hard skills—as the most available. Specifically, training programs on Microsoft Excel, basic modeling, and slide writing are offered throughout the ecosystem.” The case for soft skills is made clear in LinkedIn 2020 Workplace learning report – Soft skills will reign supreme in 2020 and beyond: While the shelf life of technical skills is relatively short, soft skills are always necessary, regardless of an employee’s functional role or how the technology landscape evolves”. This is backed up by the World Economic Forum showing that: “There’s a common misconception that we’ll all need to develop highly technological or scientific skills to succeed. Yet while it will be necessary for people to work with technology, we’re also seeing a growing need for people to develop specialized skills for how they interact with each other. These include creativity, collaboration and interpersonal dynamics, as well as skills related to specialized sales, human resources, care and education roles. Much job growth will come from seven professional areas: care, engineering and cloud computing, sales marketing and content, data and AI, green jobs, people and culture, and specialized project managers.” The World Economic Forum report on the Future of Jobs is also great at showing the path to jobs of tomorrow. 

The 5 recommended actions from BCG:

  1. Improve employees’ sense of belonging proximity training for white managers.
  2. Support employees in navigating the professional environment beyond formalised sponsorship and mentoring programs, professionnal safe-place coaching (normally reserved for senior executives) during the 1st year at the firm and the year before the promotion window
  3. Instill a growth mindset Giving and receiving feedback
  4. Help employees enhance their skills eg. how to team with clients, and how to communicate effectively
  5. Enable recruits to master tools use of critical tools, such as Microsoft Excel and data analysis and visualization tools (wonder why the darn Excel example is still there)

These are of course in addition to sufficient internal capabilities, right leadership, rigourously measuring outcomes and making line managers accountable for progress (with HR support and expertise)

This lack of progress happens despite the business case for equity and the well documented benefits of diversity (some on my curation on combating bias here and here; and BCG Business Imperative for diversity showing that diversity increases innovation by expanding the range of a company’s ideas and options, leading to better financial performance; and it also buids resilience. As a conclusion, increase diversity and win the race for talent). Women Are the X-Factor in New Ways of Working: to win, organizations will need two fundamental sets of skills: digital skills (engineers, experience designers, data scientists) and human-centered skills in areas such as communication, collaboration, inspiration, emotional intelligence, creativity, and imagination. Empathy, creativity, and judgment are paramount for solving complex problems and can not be automated. That is why leaders in today’s agile organizations don’t simply issue orders based on their own experience or expertise (#servantleadership). The HBR study conducted in 2012 and 2019 showed that women in leadership positions scored higher than male counterparts in most leadership skills, including inspiring and motivating others, building relationships, and collaboration and teamwork.

At least there is some movements with over 200 brands that have begun releasing their diversity metrics to help jumpstart their commitments to inclusivity. Think With Google gathered how companies are committing to measurable change and references 20+ studies or pieces of research. And I loved hearing about the work that Sarah Soule, Senior Associate Dean and Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford authored and discussed on Matt Abraham’s fantastic podcast Think Fast Talk Smart – Words Matter: How to Make Your Communication InclusiveWhat way does language use in case studies reinforce any kinds of existing stereotypes and biases? 

“Reading each case that’s used in our core and elective classes and looking carefully at the descriptions of the protagonists in each case. And when we found stereotypical language, we notified the faculty member. […] We offer support to the faculty member on how to teach about ways in which unconscious biases might be reinforced through language. So in other words, what we do is we offer to help faculty create teachable moments around bias as part of whatever their lesson plan is for that day with that particular case study.”

“we suggest a three-part framework for how to become better at recognizing and responding to micro aggressions. And we call this the Anticipate, Acknowledge, and Act Authentically Framework.”

As an extrovert married to an introvert, I say yes to everything highlighted by Yukari Yamahiro from Frog in What Does ‘Inclusion’ Mean in Remote Gatherings? because “More often than not, meetings are dominated by the loudest voices, putting major decisions and opportunities in the hands of the most vocal person or group.”

  • asynchronous decision making and yes to Miro! This reminds me of Netflix’s Bruce Wang on Full cycle people leadership (which I wrote about here) “We have memos as pre-read and meetings to make decision; now we’re writing DECISION block in Docs so that there’s no FOMO if someone was not at the meeting and reads the Doc.“
  • Ice breakers for the win (Menti.com is so accessible and great for quick visualisations). My lockdown discoveries are icebreaker.range.co/difficulty and random check-in questions on http://tscheck.in/
    After so many webinars and video calls this year, it comes down to human facilitators engaging audience and fostering participation. 

My small contribution to changing the ratio: #IamRemarkable, the Google initiative empowering women and underrepresented groups to challenge the social perception around self-promotion. When I attended the #IamRemarkable workshop as a participant at Google DevFest19, I was impressed by the simplicity yet effectiveness of the programme. I decided to register for the train-the-trainer and it wasn’t until May 2020 that APAC friendly slots became available. Of course, Covid moved the training online, which made it more inclusive actually and it was a well spent Labour Day.

As the programme requires you to run a practice session to validate your training, I quickly scheduled and delivered my first online workshop with my friendly peeps at SheSays SG during another public holiday wekeend (Vesak day in Singapore). Practice makes perfect! My goal is to roll out the online workshop to our 4,000 SheSays SG community (and buddy up with the awesome mentors in Who’s Your Momma programme who shape the future leaders of Singapore with me).

Then I applied #IamRemarkable to my Cloud Seeders community and to our Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIB) curriculum at Hyper Island APAC. Here’s our stand:

“We are proud to say we have long embedded diversity at the core Hyper Island Singapore, yet we acknowledge we still can do so much more in designing for inclusion. Covid19 has revealed our Achilles heel and we have begun to design learning experiences and curricula that exercise and strengthen our weakest muscle.”


We’re so diverse when I look at these siling faces of ours. Developing our DIB, I was glad to find this useful article from FastCo: Avoid these 8 common mistakes when creating a D&I policy

  1. Thinking of D&I as function of HR
  2. Falling short with training
  3. Putting policies on paper (but not in action)
  4. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach (that would seem to defeat the purpose, right?) 
  5. Focusing on Diversity but not Inclusion (I’m so happy that we’ve already realised this at HI) 
  6. Focusing on one demographic
  7. Making individuals champion the cause (this reminds me of Brené Brown, see below) 
  8. Thinking a dedicated D&I function is a solution (“you will get as much as you invest”)

The Masterclass with Dr Derrick Gay organised by Business of Fashion on How to Become a Diversity and Inclusion Change Agent was excellent. His TEDx Talk on The Double Edged Sword of diversity is just the tip of the iceberg. Dr Gay anchored the dicussion around Diversity, as a corporate buzzword, with its motivations, benefits and challenges. Then moving to inclusive leadership, its impact and the diversity framing problematic: diversity means different things to different people (with examples from 2019 The Women Diversity and Change Summit in Los Angeles and Apple VP of Human Resources).

Moving to Diversity vs Inclusion and the fact that not 1 person can be diverse, he shared the Diversity doesn’t stick without inclusion HBR report. Looking at the main traits of identity (gender, race, age, sexual orientation), the 1st step to an inclusive climate is Intercultural competency which starts with self awareness and he shared the Iceberg concept of culture with primarly in and out of awareness attributes. Referencing the Harvard Project Implicit (which I highly recommend in this post), from the authors of Blind Spot – Hidden Biases of Good People, and changing the conversation on discovering uncomfortable biases, he mentionned the metaphor of raising hands and how people can think of inclusion and relate to others as left-handed vs right-handed people: right-handed people don’t have to think about or share the perspectives of left-handed people.

Closing with pitfalls observed in D&I initiatives (similar to the 8 common mistakes above), issues in Fashion, opportunities and recommendations on becoming an Individual Change Agent, he highlighted the key difference between being an ally and a co-conspirator:

  • An Ally might go away once the publicity is gone and when it gets tough (eg. Feminism and fight for women’s vote started as inter-racial and once white women got closer to the vote then black, latino women got kicked out of the movement)
  • A Co-conspirator remains and continues to do the work

SG Innovate did a good job following up on 2020 IWD’s theme “Each for Equal” and organised a Rejoining the IT workforce 8 July 2020. The excellent Annie Lim, who gave a great presentation at Cloud Seeders in Dec 2019 to Navigate your Career with the career coaching framework and provided speed mentoring, shared other valuable tools for Diversity & Inclusion. Given that hiring managers are willing to hire for potential AND performance, they should have x% of women in final candidates, targets to reduce biases (including with recruiting agencies). Technology can help: Implicit Bias tests from Harvard which I took myself and referenced in my post regarding our unconscious human bias  and tools like textio that check language in your job descriptions, masking CVs to reduce unconscious bias. Her bottom line advice was that keywords on the JDs should cover job duties (= can do) + on the personality (= will do) + can fit. Wise words as ever.

Revisiting this reminded me of the excellent discussion and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion examples shared at Google #DEIday last year.

After the killing of George Floyd, Brené Brown and her podcast Unlocking Us have helped with understanding how to be an anti-racist (instead of just not be racist). I love when she says:

“I’m not here to be right, I’m here to get it right”.

She’s published curated anti-racism resources and as part of continuously educating myself I’ve just finished reading Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. Wow, the story of his life in South Africa during and just after apartheid brought me back to the 90’s and how privileged my childhood was (with a comfortable modern house in a democratic country). I remember in 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and we had to write a presentation at school as it was such a historical moment (at the time I cursed the event for giving me extra homework). Even doing some research as a teenager and now a grown up I’ve never internalised what Trevor Noah summarised as:

“In America you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”

It reminded me of the plantation visit in Louisiana in 2017 which made me realise the shameful “business model” behind slavery: slaves where assets, used to secure credit line, mortgaged to borrow more cash and buy more slaves… The saddest reality of this negation of human rights is that:

“Reproduction in the enslaved community meant new lines of credit were always available for the slave-owner”

My top 3 episodes from Unlocking us:

These gave me the courage to watch back-to-back Ava DuVernay’s 13th and When They See Us which had been in My List on Netflix for a long time: wow, you just want to scream with the injustice these documentaries represent.

Ava DuVernay’s work is so important in showing how racism starts with the dehumanization of black people and how that enables multiple systems to fail again and again. The Smithsonian summarises 13th well:

“Her films often seek to invert the tradition of the dehumanization of black people and the black body in the media. In the larger culture where the standard depiction of black people involves the exploitation of suffering, she wields the power of the image to jar her viewer into empathizing with suffering. She does this to devastating effect in 13th, her documentary on racial injustices in the criminal justice system.”

And The Atlantic on When They See Us:

“the miniseries about the so-called Central Park Five illustrates, with excruciating clarity, the consequences of dehumanizing language.”

Indeed, even calling the wrongfully accused New York City teenagers in the “Central Park jogger” case the “Central Park Five” dehumanises them. Better call them the Exonarated Five and know their names: Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Antron McCray.

Brené Brown’s video on Empathy is probably the simplest articulation, with simple examples of how it differs from sympathy.