Diversity and Inclusion programs have become part of many corporate HR practices in recent years — but have they worked for women?
Why haven’t Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) programs delivered the promise during the last decades? To answer this question, we need to dig a bit deeper into D&I programs and really understand if they are designed to support women to fit into a male business model, or if they are truly aimed at fostering authenticity.
You might wonder how you would know, and what the culture of a truly inclusive workplace looks like. Let’s go step-by-step and start looking at the language used by your D&I initiative. If you have programs that speak to make women more confident, more assertive, and if you advocate leaning in more, my personal perception is that your program is designed to make women fit into an outdated business model.
Often, in such programs, the underlying message women hear is to ‘buck up’, be tough, competitive, and never show weakness, compassion or vulnerability, because if they do, they will instantly lose respect or will be considered too emotional to climb the corporate ladder.
And then there is the paradox of being called abrasive, or even aggressive once they do so. This is a reaction to a model which is not representative of multitudes and is no longer helping women, or men, be truly successful in the workplace. So much of what it takes to be a leader has been historically defined by men, though, as a woman leader, I am firmly convinced that the last thing to do is to try to be like a man to succeed — to try to fit in rather than belong. Why should a woman be more like a man to succeed?
Let me share my personal experience to give some examples. I made a career by leaning in, walking into meetings with a very assertive I will show you attitude, basing my self-worth on how well everyone responded to me. I have been awarded, travelled the world, led manufacturing companies, attended women-dedicated groups, mentored, and sponsored — an endless list that speaks about being confident, taking risks, showing the way, and being regarded as a role model.
However, my intuition saw something else. She saw a woman that, in an effort to fit in, forgot parts of herself, leaving them behind. That is, until I listened to my inner voice tell me that success was not about fitting in, but rather finding a way to bring my whole self and my teams to function on a higher level.
I leaned back and asked myself 3 simple questions:
- Am I happy and enjoying my work?
- Is my energy drained?
- Am I living by my values and principles?
I realized that I was the one who had to start attending to and caring for the real, whole me.
We are responsible for becoming aware and taking responsibility for ourself by choosing our integrity and defining our voice. The real change happens when we shift our focus from tolerance to understanding and acceptance, starting with ourselves. We tell businesses that their future and competitiveness, even innovation, depends on teaching employees to work with people who are different than them. We need to bring this same message into our personal lives and assimilate it. We need to take the time to understand the different voices that play in our mind and listen to our intuition. It is certainly far more difficult to build an inclusive culture when we begin by neglecting parts of ourselves.
How can we be inclusive of others when we carve out parts of ourselves to fit in and conform?
I believe that inclusion should start with self, and it must be addressed in the workplace if we want to move to a more inclusive culture. This will be possible only when we start to value in the business landscape: softness, kindness, and our inner intuition. Intending no exclusion of men, these typically are the natural traits of the women. I am asking women to own their soft and nurturing side, rather than being ashamed of it or compartmentalizing it to fit into a workplace.
I personally challenge that the path forward is not the one to equality, but rather the path to authenticity — the creation of an environment where women, and all individuals, can bring their whole self and unveil it. I do not believe that women-dedicated groups will enable sustainable success. It is certainly important to gather and share similar experiences, challenges and aspirations; however, I see that in separating men and women, we only increase the gap. It becomes an ongoing battle of genders.
As women, we have a responsibility to sit at the table of conversation, showing up and having the courage to speak up for ourselves. Men have to sit equally at the same table, neither as enemy nor opponent — as comrades, not competitors. We have to start from the relationship with ourselves and in relationship with each other. I see it as a symbiotic relationship where organizations are the incubator for enabling this process. They have to create the vital safe space where we engage in conversations as equals. I envision a D&I movement that engages hearts and minds, starting with an understanding of our implicit biases, and turn this understanding into real change.
Here’s the issue: Most of us have been taught to keep quiet about the things that aren’t pretty, both within ourselves and in others.
We are taught to bury the truth of our experience so deeply that sometimes, we don’t even know our truth ourselves. We walk in the workplace wearing a mask with the desire of fitting in, while inside, we are drowning. Our intuition, our inner truth are suffocated by our life. The voices in our head have been conditioned to tell us why we can’t follow our inner truth.
The first step we can take into the path of re-discovering our inner truth is to meet the inner voices that are holding us back — to find out what implicit bias we carry around and how this drives our behavior. We need to carefully listen to these voices and discover the difference between the voice of the inner bully and the one of authenticity — the voice that knocks you down vs. the one that lifts you up. Understanding the inner bully is crucial to speaking our truth and showing up as whole.
Only when we address the relationship with ourselves can we begin to shape D&I programs that deliver the inherent strength of diversity. By prioritizing the connection with ourselves, we become truly inclusive. I envision a D&I program which focuses first upon understanding the diversity we carry in ourselves, and supports the self-leadership process. This is the path toward enabling real inclusion.
How are you showing up at work and what are you bringing to the diversity table?