I’ll cut to the chase and say, yes, I think it is time to hope. We still face a mixed landscape when it comes to inclusion. We continue to see reports of pay inequity; we know artificial intelligence, which holds the hope of eliminating bias, also has the potential to learn from ours.
Sometimes it feels like we’re going backwards. There are fewer women on corporate boards than in the last 8 years and the percentage of women in the C-suite remains dismal — this despite the fact that the number of women on boards and in the C-Suite is proven to improve companies’ return on investment and return on equity.
In fact, companies with a woman in the CEO or chairperson role have performed far better than the MSCI World Index over the past eight years. And companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have higher financial returns.
The truth is, diversity is disruptive. And disruption is uncomfortable. I would point you to my colleague Gabriela Burlacu’s clear-eyed view of why disruption is uncomfortable and the backlash it can create.
Disruption is good business
There’s no denying: we live in highly-disruptive times. Unprecedented technology advances are putting pressure on traditional business practices, leadership roles, and whole industries to transform or perish. For many companies, disruption has proven to be very good business. For those interested in creating and participating in more inclusive business environments, disruption holds great promise.
Today’s businesses leaders know they must listen carefully and respond quickly and effectively to an ever-increasingly connected, informed, involved and diverse customer base, or risk being left behind. Diverse perspectives are critical to the rapid innovation today’s market demands. As Tamara McCleary points out persuasively in a recent post, “Gender Marketing: He Brain vs She Brain“, women offer another perspective. They think differently than men — and they just happen to account for 85% of all consumer purchases, including everything from autos to health care.
But there is another reason this potentially is a pivotal moment for business inclusion. The urgent need for diverse, innovative voices is coming at the same time the demographics of our workforce and business leadership is changing organically: Millennials already make up the largest group in the workforce, and now they hold nearly 20% of executive positions.
And millennials are the most diverse generation in U.S. history. They come to the workforce with a different set of values, priorities and expectations, including a belief in the business benefits of diversity. An overwhelming majority say they prefer not to work at organizations they see as unsupportive of innovation — and 40% of millennials see a lack of gender and racial/ethnic diversity as a major barrier to innovation.
Data is our friend
However, I’m most optimistic about increasing diversity and inclusion because we now have the science to back it up. Insights gained from centralized workforce hiring, retention and performance data now allows companies to approach talent management intelligently — to make good on the promises many already have made to add much needed diversity to their workplaces and empower all their employees.
Will it be easy? No, we’ve already seen that it is not.
But increasingly it is possible to track real progress and hold leaders accountable. And, frankly, the stakes are too high for us not to bring in richly-diverse perspectives at this important moment in the evolution of technology and humankind. One of the most compelling messages I heard at the Grace Hopper Celebration came from Fei-Fei Li, Google’s chief scientist of Cloud, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, who said, “We all know AI is going to change the world. The real question is: who is going to change AI?”
We get to choose: Will we reap the enormous benefits of diverse perspectives or lose our business opportunity to an irrational bias toward homogeneity, toward business as usual?
I’m hopeful that advances in technology and the next generation will not only drive the demand for diversity but help empower us to accomplish it. To get there, we each have a vital role to play. Seek out and encourage diversity in your workplace, seek out differing viewpoints and lend a voice to those from diverse perspectives – together, we can be the rising tide, we can lift all ships.