Gender, diversity and inclusion in the workplace | Binna Kandola

diverse business meetingAs the first month of 2017 draws to a close, it has become abundantly clear that gender diversity and parity will once again be at the top of popular discourse.

A significant study from the Resolution Foundation recently explored the gender pay gap, revealing that the current differences we see revolve largely around parenthood and choices in later life. Hollywood is rearing its head again: a recent study from UCLA has sparked outrage about the dramatic differences in treatment and pay that even the highest actresses experience when compared to their male counterparts.

So what can we do to bring change about? As a start we could look at the way diversity and inclusion is practiced. It’s pretty ironic that reaching true gender diversity revolves around the idea of change, yet the one thing that hasn’t shifted is our approach to diversity itself. It’s been over 20 years since my first book on the topic was published and yet so many different organisations and industries still seem set in their ways – despite the fact that diversity at senior levels is quite clearly still a distant aspiration.


It’s impossible to think of an area of management which has remained as static as “box ticking” – the idea that reaching certain numbers and fulfilling set targets will truly help us to reach gender parity. Admittedly as a result of this we are now talking about these kinds of figures more than ever, which is an excellent thing.

However, diversity strategies like this need to be challenged. We are still placing too much focus on achieving certain percentages and targets and this is a fundamental problem in itself. By setting targets for women as non-executives, a smokescreen is created that prevents examination of fundamental (and difficult) parts of organisational cultures. This includes recognising how talent is identified, how flexible an organisation is and predisposition to bias. By relying on targets, organisations can often fall into the trap of “ticking” the gender parity box and resultantly forget about their diversity strategy all together.


A similar approach to the “box ticking” we have already explored is creating women’s only network groups (or resource groups). This is considered a “best practice solution”. Whilst it is a commendable option to explore – as these places can be considered as safe spaces to discuss issues and offer support to those who feel isolated in their workplaces – it is hard to find many further benefits. Creating a separate enclave which excludes others is the antithesis of inclusion, and actually encourages separation. The reality is that by separating one group from another with in the work place, you must resultantly work harder to be recognised.

People have to take responsibility for their own careers and actively pursue recognition within the context on the work place, rather than relying on support groups to push them forward. Networking inwardly and waiting for the workplace to change to the will of an in group is futile, and change must be pursued from within existing structures.


Finally, when it comes to gender, we need to question the assumptions on which many strategies are based. Research has proven time and time again that there is absolutely no difference between the capabilities of men and women, so the “men and women are equal but different” mantra which many prescribe to ends up doing more harm. It simply perpetuates older gender stereotypes, but in a more positive and acceptable way. As long as those striving for diversity perpetuate this slogan, they will be part of the problem instead of the solution.

Removing the last two words in that slogan and instead saying “men and women are equal” allows the alteration of both meaning and understanding around gender. This approach means a more radical perspective can be adopted, and in turn lead us to a key solution and figure:

The correct figure for women in leadership roles should be 50%.

Those advocates leading on the topic of diversity for their companies should be careful not to fall into the trap of leaning on targets. We must make greater progress in the field of diversity and make sure that the people trying to affect positive change do not inadvertently stand in the way of it. By really challenging ourselves to lift the blinkers, hopefully we can move towards an equal and fair workplace where opportunities are open to all.

About the author

Professor Binna Kandola OBE is a diversity expert and founder of business psychologists Pearn Kandola. He has written extensively about gender in the work place, and seeks to tackle unconscious bias in the business world.

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