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Why Truly Diverse Organisations Focus On Inclusive Design

Why Truly Diverse Organisations Focus On Inclusive Design

By May Knight from Korn Ferry 

The past few years have seen commendable progress to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace. However, countries in Asia Pacific are still lagging behind nations in Europe and North America when it comes to gender diversity on boards. According to Credit Suisse’s Gender 3000 report women only make up less than 15% of boards in the region, in comparison to nearly 25% in North America and 30% in Europe. Japan and South Korea have some of the lowest representation of women on boards, with 5.7% and 3.1% respectively.

Looking at Women in Management more broadly, the report only finds a slight increase in the percentage of women in Leadership roles globally, from 13% in 2016 to 17% in 2019.

Studies1 now clearly show that an increase in female workforce participation — or a reduction in the gap between women’s and men’s workforce participation — results in faster economic growth. Otherwise known as ‘womenomics’, this market force has contributed more to global growth than economic giant, China, over the past decade or so. However, many organisations in the APAC region are still struggling to provide truly equal opportunities to men and women.

Businesses that are serious about tipping the scales in the fight for diversity and inclusion in the workplace will need to look at ways to transform themselves structurally – by addressing equality, equity through inclusive design.

Inclusive Design Broken Down

The wider benefits of inclusive design have already been discovered in many areas of day-to-day life. Just think about how those curb ramps for people with disabilities have made life better for joggers, cyclists, and parents with strollers as well. Those same design principles can also be applied within organisations to create talent systems that are free from legacy inequities and inclusive of all human differences. Organisations need to start by embracing four inclusive design principles: define equality, unearth equalities, learn from diversity and start with the minority.

Be Clear About What Equality Means

Ever wondered why the line for the women’s toilet is always much longer than the men’s? Or why voice recognition systems are not as responsive to a female voice. Many of the products and services we use today have been designed for a young, white and able-bodied ‘Reference Man’. The result? Poor user experiences for everyone else.

Equality is a value of ensuring fairness for everyone and most organisations have it enshrined in their vision statements, codes of ethics, and non-discrimination policies. But what does equality actually mean? The answer will vary from organisation to organisation.

Inclusive design journeys should therefore begin with a transparent, inclusive exploration and declaration of what kind of equality the organisation stands for and how it manifests itself in talent management practices and processes.

They must also be clear about the non-negotiables that are expected of every leader, manager, and employee, and about the rules, standards, and guidelines that will ensure that no one is favoured or unfavoured on the basis of who they are.

For example, tech giants Google and Apple no longer require university degrees in their hiring in a bid to remove inequity in recruitment of underrepresented talent, as societal biases have tracked women and racial/ethnic minorities away from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education or even away from higher education for many years. This move has resulted in a more inclusive design for everyone who might not have degrees but does have the needed aptitudes and learning agility.

Identify Inequities

The terms equality and equity are often used interchangeably, and although they are related, they are not in fact the same. Equity is about righting past wrongs or discovering if there are any ‘faults in the default’. The aforementioned young, white and able-bodied ‘Reference Man’ represents such a erroneous default. Equity recognises that not everyone has had equal opportunity to compete in and benefit from a system that is supposed to be available fairly and equally for all.

The second inclusive design principle is to identify those inequities by examining the data and by exploring the experiences of different talent groups— experiences that can be difficult and even painful. This is where HR leaders need to take the lead on their talent management strategies – by analysing pay equity, offering flexible working arrangements for returning mothers, extending family-friendly policies to working fathers and more.

Listen to the Overlooked User

The only way to break away from the ‘reference man approach” and ensure that inequities are not perpetuated is to modify or create systems using input from all users—from the mainstream to the overlooked user. This requires a people-driven and empathetic approach.

Organisations, and in this case, business leaders, should be discerning of people’s vast differences and consider the needs, wants, and aspirations of the most excluded user rather than simply assuming similarity and building their solutions around the reference man. This requires a transparent and two-way internal communication strategy, where employees are empowered to give feedback and inputs.

Start with the Minority

For the longest time, the average white-collar worker has also been the basis for the design of most talent systems in the past, and even for some traditional organisations today. Hence, business leaders often unknowingly embrace a one-size-fits-all approach to talent systems. In this way, unconscious biases were built into talent systems and have served to preserve glass ceilings and to perpetuate unequal outcomes in access, opportunities, support, and rewards not only for women but also other marginalised groups.

Fortunately, science and experience are showing us that if we can make something work for the exception, then we will end up with a better design and talent strategy for all.

The Truly Diverse, Inclusive and Equitable Organisation

Developing organisations that are truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable requires a commitment to inclusive design. It requires implementing of long understood best practices for inclusion and addressing legacy inequities through a combination of structural and behavioural inclusion interventions.

It involves applying inclusive design principles to prevent new exclusions from being codified into the organisational DNA.

But at an even more profound and human level, it requires courage and will:

  • Courage to ask if inequities are present and, when they are confirmed, confront the past wrongs and make them right.
  • Courage to enter the environments of those who are different from us, see things from their perspective, and be curious about how they think, feel, and act.
  • Courage to share stories of our own journeys and the ways they have shaped how we view and live in the world.
  • And after all that, it requires the will to see changes through, acknowledging that the transformation takes more than just one great training experience or high-profile initiative.

Ultimately, it’s about inclusive leadership – because organisations can only hope to achieve sustained structural and behavioural inclusion through inclusive design if they have the motivated, skilled, and outcome-driven leaders and managers who can lead the way.


1 Studies: Goldmansachs Womenomics 5.0 | WEF: When more women join the workforce, everyone benefits. Here’s why.

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