Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | Diversity starts with a change in mindset, not conducive infrastructure

Most firms have realized that by not employing women, they limit the quality of talent they acquire

Diversity is an extremely nuanced topic. The first thing an expert would tell you is that “inclusion" is broader and more fundamental than “diversity", or that the former is an enabler and the latter an outcome.

Anyone who understands organization culture knows that it manifests at three levels—the “artifact" level (office décor, dress codes, the things we actually see), at the level of “espoused values" (what’s displayed in meeting rooms and the reception area), and the “tacit" level (the unsaid and unspoken beliefs that quietly drive anything that matters). The first two are the least representative of the organization’s culture. Similarly, to understand the diversity and inclusion orientation of a company, one must go beyond the visible and the obvious.

Some organizations are more receptive to the idea of diversity than others. While some celebrate diversity, others tolerate it for tactical reasons. Seemingly fair and rational organizations could fall into the category of those that tolerate diversity—they say all the right things but don’t really follow through. If you go entirely by what organizations say, you are likely to reach the wrong conclusions.

Every individual has both the masculine and the feminine elements in different degrees. In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang is a concept of dualism, describing how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected and interdependent.

How to become fair and rational

Organizations where the leadership team is masculine in thought process, even if they have women on the deck, are unlikely to be very open to diversity. Some of these organizations can come across as fair and rational even to insiders, but their sense of what is fair and rational tends to be inflexible and unrelated to the context.

Organizations with a balance between the masculine and the feminine elements in the leadership team are usually open to some flexibility on the interpretation of fairness and rationality. These organizations also handle the conflict between equality versus affirmative action much more easily.

Affirmative action is an essential part of creating a level-playing field for a group that has been discriminated against for a long time. This often creates tensions. But organizations that are truly open to diversity deal with this conflict more effortlessly than those that tend to be closed.

Multinational corporations in India, for instance, have been more comfortable with affirmative action than some home-grown companies that pride themselves in being fair and rational. Some IIMs have also taken a more affirmative approach in their selection process than others, which follow a more rigid interpretation of equality, and this reflects in their gender ratios.

In my own experience with five startups, some were more open to diversity and inclusion than the others, though it wouldn’t have been evident to either observers or insiders because all five were extremely rational and committed to a merit-based culture.

Some organizations hire women to fulfil diversity goals but tend to hold women to the same leadership styles and behavioural norms as men. Making men out of women is no diversity. While it is important to hold everyone to the same business outcomes, it is important to recognize that the same business outcomes can be accomplished in different ways. Laying far too high an emphasis on the behaviours and style is harmful for diversity.

Changes in the nature of work, facilitated partly by technology and partly by the changing needs of society, have enabled far more women to enter the workforce than ever before. Most companies have recognized that by not being open to employing women, they limit the quality of talent they acquire. Many of these companies have, therefore, begun to hire women in fairly large numbers.

My view is that as more women enter leadership roles in these companies they are bound to slowly assert their natural leadership styles more confidently. This would create a ripple effect that would eventually result in true diversity over a period of time. So, driving a diversity initiative is far less about conducive infrastructure and facilities and more about mindset.

Diversity is going to be increasingly non-negotiable. It is useful to understand your organization culture and slowly make the necessary mindset changes to make the company more open and conducive to implementing diversity.

T.N. Hari is head of human resources at Bigbasket.com and adviser to several venture capital firms and startups. He is the co-author of Saying No To Jugaad: The Making Of BigBasket.

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