Often, when it comes to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI), ‘equity’ is the part of the equation that gets less focus, despite the fact that it’s arguably the lynchpin. Equity is about recognising inequalities and working to fix them, either on a small, personal scale or in terms of breaking or changing the systems that produce them. At the same time, you have to understand that no solution will work for everybody. You have to work to understand your people and what inclusion means to each of them, and then come up with a scalable plan to build that inclusion.
Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, spoke to Warren Stapley, Head of EDI at Montagu Evans about making equity just as much of a priority as diversity and inclusion.
I was a corporate finance lawyer for over a decade, and I’m still a qualified solicitor, which is useful because I do quite a lot of equality and anti-discrimination pro bono legal work on the side of law centres. In terms of the journey itself, though, it does look like quite an extreme pivot on paper to go from a hard-edged corporate background into being one of the EDI folks. For me, though, it wasn’t so much a change of pace as taking pride in turning my volunteering into my full-time job. Inclusion was something always close to my heart, even whilst I was one of those big bad lawyers. I was born severely hearing-impaired and needed quite a lot of help with my speech (I’m still dependent on hearing aids), so I became increasingly interested in EDI, how disability is managed, and how other differences and identities can be marginalised in workplaces, especially the most demanding ones like I was part of. Just when we got to the backend of COVID, I thought, ‘I really quite fancy doing this work now as a dedicated career’.
First, recognise that the EDI project isn’t a Human Resources (HR) thing. It’s not the responsibility of one person or one team. It’s something that has a remit throughout the entire organisation. Diversity is a fact of life. It exists in the world around us. We’re all different. Equity, then, is how you break down the barriers, look at systems, start dismantling what doesn’t work, and imagine how things might work if you were to do things differently. It’s about recognising that systemic inequalities exist and working together to produce an outcome of inclusion.
Recognising there’s no one-size-fits-all. Inclusion looks and feels different to different people. And that’s where you get into the discussion of belonging, because so often belonging is seen to be the stage beyond inclusion, this idea of Utopia that EDI efforts are supposed to achieve. What we have to recognise is, that whilst inclusion is an outcome and a feeling based on how you’ve handled diversity and processed that with equity, different people look at inclusion in different ways. People don’t necessarily want to belong to the place where they work. You can’t mandate belonging. Does every LGBTQ+ person want to belong to their Pride ERG? Does every Black person want to be part of the racial and cultural heritage networks on offer? Do some people just want to come in, do a nine-to-five and go home? Do some people not want to share aspects of their identity with others? You can and should endeavour to make people feel included. You can facilitate inclusion by getting equity and diversity right. Then, people get to see and decide for themselves the extent to which they would like to belong to an organisation.
You need something sustainable and scalable. If the organisation were to suddenly expand tomorrow, you need plans for how to make the strategy future-proof but also how to be accountable to ourselves and each other. You need transparency, integrity, and honesty, and to be clear in terms of the roadmap attached to the strategy for the next six months, twelve months, etc., to keep up the enthusiasm.
Historically, leadership had the look of dominance, power, control, command, hierarchy, and homogenous teams. The trust came from the fact that we all look and sound alike, so we trust each other thanks to affinity bias. Inclusive leadership, however, ensures that people with leadership management responsibilities are better equipped to handle different and diverse teams. An inclusive leader isn’t involved in hierarchy, power, and control. They’re interested in surrounding themselves with great people, diverse perspectives, and cultural competence, and they exhibit humility. They recognise they don’t have all the answers, and are prepared to be wrong. They have empathy for people who don’t look and sound like them, and respect for lived experience that doesn’t match theirs. This is a genuine equity mindset.
Organisations are quite complex and full of diverse viewpoints. Not everyone agrees. As responsibility and expectations grow, fostering a sense of psychological safety is important. This means it has to be a safe place to fail, to learn, to ask questions, to know you can challenge the status quo without fear of retaliation.
Something that’s always stuck with me is, many years ago, when I was a junior lawyer, a very senior partner said to me, ‘Nobody cares about your disability’. This is quite interesting because it sounds like a negative, but what he was trying to convey was that you are your own expert about yourself, and so you have to advocate for yourself.