Are organisations ‘diversity washing’ with quotas?


Leaders need to implement a holistic approach to cultural diversity in the workplace.
Key Takeaways
  • Feedback can help a person be more aware of how others see them
  • Some people believe that diversity quotas can increase the representation of people from minority groups in specific roles
  • Critics of quotas feel that they are a type of diversity washing
Karen Loon | Image source: Supplied

Karen Loon is a Non-Executive Director, and a former senior Big 4 partner. She has worked with the world’s leading banks and led diversity initiatives. She has qualifications in system psychodynamics and governance from INSEAD, and research interests in identity work and organisational change. She explains why she believes that leaders need to implement a holistic approach to cultural diversity in the workplace.

Do you believe organisations are just ‘diversity washing’ with quotas? And why do you think this strategy isn’t working?

Many well-intentioned people believe that diversity quotas can increase the representation of people from minority groups in specific roles. They think quotas will offset the effects of systematic biases against minority groups and lead to greater leadership diversity in a real, measurable way.

Critics of quotas, however, may feel that they are a type of ‘diversity washing,’ as they appear to embody diversity and inclusive practices. However, they may be superficial and fail to make real and sustained changes.

While the argument for quotas may appear logical, quotas often are met with resistance. Quotas don’t deal with the fact that when people feel that the quota is unfair to them, they sometimes become resentful, so they behave illogically and defensively. As a result, they may cling to familiar ways of doing things and collectively resist the hoped-for changes.

As an Asian-Australian woman, have you ever had experiences where you’ve felt like an outsider at work because of your cultural identity, and what advice do you have for other Asian-Australians who want to rise and thrive in their corporate careers?

While at work, I have experienced some situations where I felt like an outsider because I am an Asian-Australian, I have experienced more difficulties as a female leader.

This is common amongst Asian-Australian women, as we often encounter a double-jeopardy. Not only do we feel we hit a glass ceiling, but also a bamboo ceiling. This is where we feel that we are perceived to lack leadership potential and communication skills because of stereotypes often placed on people from Asian backgrounds.

My research found that people with multiple identities often have more challenging career journeys because they feel tensions between their work identities and family values.

An essential first step for anyone – whether an Asian-Australian or otherwise – who wants to rise up the corporate ranks is understanding themselves. Early experiences at home in our families and how we learn to relate to others influence who we are and how we behave at work.

Throughout our careers, we should be open to holding a mirror to ourselves and become more aware of how others see us and how we come across to others. This can be done by obtaining feedback from others both at home and work.

Further, do a ‘role biography’ exercise. You will understand how your experiences in formal and informal roles at home, school and work have shaped you as an employee.

Finally, people should also seek assistance from a broad network of supporters (particularly sponsors, but also mentors, family, and networks), practice managing their stress at work and be open to lifetime learning.

Why is it important for organisations to foster a holistic approach to cultural diversity?

Unfortunately, many diversity programmes fail to have the impact that organisations hope. For many businesses, increasing diversity is not one of their top issues but is a ‘nice to have’.

Tactical solutions that don’t lead to long-term behaviour changes may not move the dial. For example, studies have shown that unconscious bias training, a standard tool used, can make matters worse, not better. This is because it can exacerbate conflicts, activate bias, and anxieties or fail to deal with underlying power issues.

An organisation’s diversity initiatives must be holistic, well thought through, and closely managed. If they do not get ‘below the surface’ and deal with people’s emotions which could be the real blockers of change, they may not result in sustainable change and more inclusive environments.

What is your advice to leaders who want to foster a holistic approach to cultural diversity in their organisations?

A healthy organisation is one where its purpose, values and behaviours are aligned, and its corporate culture balances its focus between performance and people-related factors. Its people embrace diversity and act inclusively at all levels.

Accordingly, if an organisation wants to improve its leadership diversity, its leaders should reframe increasing its diversity as an organisational culture change initiative.

If employees’ lived behaviours are not in line with the organisation’s expected behaviours, leaders should understand what could be leading to this gap, and what needs to change.

This approach must not only have rational initiatives (i.e., head) but also deal with people’s emotions (i.e., heart).

Rational tools such as KPIs or compliance with policies and procedures are important. They may also help to increase visible diversity quickly. However, focusing too much on performance measures can inadvertently increase anxieties and lead some people to behave in ways that are not inclusive. As a result, others may feel like they don’t belong. In the worst-case scenario, work cultures may become toxic and political, people’s behaviours become dysfunctional, and they have a silo mentality.

Therefore, an environment of psychological safety, where people feel comfortable voicing their concerns, is a crucial enabler towards lowering the barriers to change and increasing leadership diversity.

How do leaders create an environment of psychological safety, where employees from all backgrounds feel comfortable discussing issues related to cultural diversity?

Diversity without inclusion can lead to exclusion. Conversely, when people are included, they feel socially accepted, have meaningful relationships, and feel they belong to the organisation.

Where there is psychological safety, team members feel accepted and respected, and both openness and vulnerability are welcome in the workplace. In these settings, it is easier for people to overcome their defensiveness or ‘learning anxiety’, as this permits them to speak up, take risks and challenge the status quo.

Leaders play a critical role in creating an environment for learning by acting in ways that promote psychological safety and reduce team fault lines and invisible barriers.

However, they also need to remain mindful that power hierarchies can limit the effectiveness of communication and collaboration, silence weaker team members and inhibit teamwork. Moreover, misunderstandings may arise if power hierarchies are left unexplored and uncontested.

How can business leaders become sponsors for culturally diverse employees in their organisations and/or offer opportunities for career advancement?

Sponsors play a vital role in helping culturally diverse employees ‘create a leader persona’ by providing them access to a broad range of role models. Sponsorship programmes should be aligned to the organisation’s talent development strategy and cover selection and matching, the engagement process, metrics and have top management involved. They should also take extra care of their sponsees at the most challenging moments during their careers.

In addition to sponsorship programmes, forward-looking organisations recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach may not be the answer for culturally diverse employees. So instead, they also use a variety of initiatives that go beyond the traditional relationships and combine different types of mentoring. These include one-on-one mentoring, peer mentoring, group mentoring, reverse mentoring, and purposefully safe spaces that support their career advancement.

In your own experiences, when you’ve tried to discuss cultural diversity or introduce a new initiative, have you ever experienced resistance, and how did you overcome this?

In my experience, rolling out any new program that seeks to change how things are done in an organisation is not easy. This is because people and groups naturally resist change.

A critical step required to overcome the inertia for change is to tap into employees’ psyche to understand what some of the blockers under the surface could be. Individually, people may have personal concerns, such as their fear that they will lose their job to someone else or that the organisational culture will change. Collectively, the corporate culture may lead people to resist change as the new initiative is not how ‘we do things here’.

Group discussions, where emotions and cultural humility are welcomed into conversations, not only focus on what is said but seek to uncover the ‘unsaid’ in teams and unblock these barriers.