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Pride and Prejudice 2017

Diversity Is Messy, But Worth It

During the London leg of The Economist’s global Pride & Prejudice summit, executives from the worlds of tech, finance and advertising discussed the remaining challenges facing LGBT inclusion, and what companies can do to proactively foster diversity.

“If you’re doing it because you think you must, don’t do it,” says Thomas Buberl, CEO of AXA. Each panel is in agreement that authenticity and intention are key. “If you’re not doing something well, bring in people who are,” says Robyn Exton, founder of HER, an app for LGBT women. “Diversity has to be completely through the bloodline of a company in order to be authentic.”

But who turns this intention into action? Feasibly, CEOs don’t have the time to dedicate to founding LGBT networks. Which brings us to the greatest untapped resource in the working world: millennials. It’s this oft-maligned, seemingly “entitled” group that are keenest to make a difference and push change forward. In order to do that, though, they need to be empowered.

“Give them space and visibility, and they’ll start their own programmes and projects,” says Exton. Buberl also advocates reverse mentoring, where junior and senior employees can exchange mutually enriching skills, knowledge and perspectives, thereby providing guidance to younger workers and cluing older workers into current issues.

“There’s a massive opportunity in creating a company that’s diverse, with a culture of dissent,” says Riccardo Zacconi, CEO of King. “The great thing about a grassroots movement is that it gathers its own speed, that you can’t stop, and shouldn’t want to stop.”

While Exton, Zucconi and Buberl are all supporters of the bottom-up approach, Mediacom’s Karen Blackett believes that in order to be effective, diversity needs to begin with senior leadership and work its way down. “Change needs to come from the top to build infrastructure,” she says, “and then you need an army of advocates within the organisation to make it stick.” She adds that two-way communication is important, and advises junior staff to tell their leaders “what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”

Companies on this journey are almost certainly in for a rocky ride. Clashes of opinion and personality are not only inevitable, but a sign that you’re doing something right.

“Whenever you have diversity, it’s messy,” says Blackett. “You’re going to have conflict, there are different perspectives, but I genuinely believe the end result is better. Mistakes happen all the time in terms of the content we create, because we don’t have diverse workforces. With more inclusion, you get better creativity and more successful ads.”

Building a truly diverse company goes beyond quotas and internal networks, and simply assuming that people will automatically know you’re a progressive company is misguided. “There’s political acceptance for LGBT people, but there’s not complete social acceptance,” says Exton. “It’s important to show, not tell.”

One simple way to do this, she suggests, is to ask people their preferred gender pronouns when they come in for an interview, immediately signaling that your organization is supportive and tolerant. This is an easier proposition in certain places, of course; as Emerald Life chairman Steve Wardlaw points out, in Saudi Arabia, it’s still practically unheard of for men and women to work together in the same office, and so jumping into a conversation on transgender equality might be skipping a few steps.

Another way to demonstrate that you are taking diversity seriously, says Exton, is to hold yourself publicly accountable. A growing number of Silicon Valley companies are publishing their hiring numbers each year, and making strides to build inclusive workspaces (despite tech remaining a relatively un-diverse industry).

For a small number of companies, however, a very different kind of diversity conversation is taking place. In the case of HER, Exton quips: “We’re such a gay company, we might actually have to hire some straight people!”

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