Leading by inclusive example
After decades of working with clients on inclusive leadership, diversity strategies, and unconscious bias, it still has the power to shock. Professor Alessandro Sturmia’s comments about physics “becoming sexist against men” despite the evidence of systemic prejudice and discrimination against women are shocking. Yet, at the same time very familiar.
It is a well-worn strategy to suggest that the exact opposite happens of what is the truth. This is expressed in various ways, but includes the common phrases like: “men don’t stand a chance anymore”; “it’s tough being a white man these days”; “it’s all gone too far” and “black women rocket to the top here.” The last being a direct quote from a leader in a company where there was only one black woman on the leadership team.
When these things are said, the data is not considered. If this is being said in a company, it says more about the leadership than the people saying it. Staff have not been helped to understand either the patterns in the labour market and why they exist.
Diversity drives innovation
Now, compare Professor Sturmia’s comments with the leadership of Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell. One of the UK’s leading female astronomers, Burnell won the Breakthrough prize for her discovery of radio pulsars. Decades ago she had not been included in a Nobel prize citation alongside her male colleagues despite being the first to spot and analyse radio pulsars, an experience that drove her on rather than diminished her.
She has donated £2.3 million prize to fund women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers and help counter unconscious bias in physics research jobs.
Burnell believes that because she was from a minority group herself this helped to bring in new perspectives that led to her discovery: “I found pulsars because I was a minority person and feeling a bit overawed at Cambridge. I was both female but also from north-west of the country and I think everybody else around me was southern English.”
“So, I have this hunch that minority folk brings a fresh angle n things and that is often a very productive thing. In general, a lot of breakthrough come from left field.”
Whenever we challenge the status quo, there will be a backlash. It is just a question of thinking through what it will look and sound like. Great leaders prepare for this and help their staff respond positively to the work that is needed to create more inclusive organisations, which will result in all the benefits we are aware of including: better financial performance, recruiting the best from across the world, eliminating harassment and bullying, innovations, and the discretionary effort made by staff when their company values are seen to be lived.