Don’t Forget the “I”: Centering Inclusion in Your DE&I Strategy

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In recent years, and the past year in particular, corporate America supercharged its focus on diversity, equality, and inclusion (DE&I) as stakeholders now hold businesses accountable for driving systemic change. With companies prioritizing internal efforts to promote DE&I measures, leaders must be careful to ensure that the programs they develop are actually promoting inclusivity within their companies.

Studies show that, despite the best intentions, many corporate DE&I programs fall short of the expectations of the people for whom they were designed to help. This article draws examples from the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, which is one of the most diverse communities in the U.S. and is often underserved by current DE&I strategy. According to a study from Quantum Workplace, 75% of employees in underrepresented groups do not feel they have benefitted from their company’s DE&I programs. Similarly, a 2020 Coqual study found that only 40% of full-time employees surveyed felt their companies had effective diversity and inclusion programs. This study included employees who identified as white (41%), Asian (40%), Latinx (39%), and Black (34%). 

Creating a truly inclusive workplace means cultivating an environment that recognizes and celebrates differences. Dedicated leaders can lean into the following areas:

1. Intersectionality

Intersectionality is a theory that highlights the “heterogeneity of privileges and layers of oppression that individuals within a group may experience.” For example, within the AAPI community alone, there is a variety of cultures, perspectives, and languages — the more than 20 million Asians in the U.S. trace their roots to 19 different countries. Applying an intersectionality framework in the workplace involves understanding and highlighting the nuanced perspectives of the various groups within the organization, and avoiding shortcuts that erase the lived experiences of others.

2. Supporting ERGs

Employee resource groups (ERGs) can provide a safe space for employees to voice concerns, share experiences, elevate marginalized voices, and highlight ways companies can be more inclusive. Companies focused on championing inclusion should be careful not to exploit the contributions of volunteers, and should support their ERGs with the resources necessary to execute on plans and programs they develop. For many ERGs, the opposite occurs: “What we’re inevitably doing is giving them unpaid labor. We’re asking them to solve a problem that they can’t solve on their own, but also that they’re not being paid extra to solve. So compensating these folks is critical,” noted Aaron Powers, Managing Director of SYLVAIN, in a conversation on cultural celebrations in the workplace. Executive sponsorship and investment also drives home the importance of the ERG’s role and garners company-wide support. 

3. Compensation and Promotion Structures

According to the National Women’s Law Center, AAPI women also lose $10,000 annually to the wage gap. There is also a significant drop-off between entry-level and senior leadership roles when compared to their white colleagues. A recent McKinsey & Company study found that Asian American employees have 64% less representation at senior level roles compared to entry-level roles — the number is 57% for Black employees and 24% for Hispanic/Latinx employees. 

The lack of representation in leadership, particularly among AAPI employees, is an ongoing issue driven by stereotypes and misconceptions. Speaking on the topic at a recent Kindred conversation, Sweet Joy Hachuela, co-founder and Chief Growth Officer of the Medici Group, noted that one of the underlying causes is the perception of the AAPI community as a monolith, which silences the lived experiences of many. In addition, the model minority myth often paints AAPI employees as universally successful and not in need of support. “We’re seen as this notion of being a model minority. We’ve had the resources to go to school, we’ve done well, we’ve got good grades, and now we have this great job. So there’s no need to provide more support services for us as we rise in the career ladder,” Hachuela says. 

Companies should consider how compensation and promotion practices can be more inclusive and fair toward all employees. Examining pay structures across and within different demographics — like AAPI women from South Asia versus East Asia, for example — is also essential to ensure pay parity across an organization. For some companies such as the Carlyle Group, tying leadership compensation and employee performance bonuses to diversity and inclusion objectives helps ensure accountability and progress. 

4. Tap Experts

Creating a truly inclusive work environment is a long-term effort. Leaders shouldn’t expect to have all the answers and should not rely on employees to take the lead on solving company-wide problems. Gena Upshaw, Manager at Macquarie Group Foundation, advises companies to bring in experts instead of continuously relying on employees to volunteer their time to do culture work. “Invest in doing it sustainably. Hire a consultant. Hire an external firm or bring in someone whose role is full time to do this culture work, to do this equity work, to support your people,” she said. Working with diversity experts and consultants will help show the way to identify gaps and develop an effective plan to address them. 

With diversity, equity, and inclusion becoming a key focus for job seekers as much as employees, taking the time and effort to create an inclusive culture benefits both the company and the workforce. In addition to retaining top talent, an inclusive workplace culture ensures that diverse employees are able to thrive. 

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Urey Onuoha

Published on June 03, 2021