Diversity sits at the core of business sustainability programs. However, with the huge global economic upheaval ushered in by COVID-19 there were genuine concerns that many programs would be unwound, or at the least frozen. And there’s evidence to support those concerns.

Happily, though there is also evidence to suggest that those who maintained and increased their investments in diversity and inclusion are being rewarded for it with better financial outcomes.

Further reading: Tackle The Tech Skills Shortage By Encouraging More Women Into The Sector, Say Execs

In its third diversity and inclusion report in five years, McKinsey and Company found that, since 2018, most companies have made little progress, are stalled, or are even slipping backward.

Diverse companies perform better. Source: McKinsey and Co.

But the authors also observed that some at least are making impressive gains in diversity, “particularly in executive teams.”

Not only does the business case for inclusion and diversity programs remain robust, according to McKinsey, but, “the relationship between diversity on executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time.”

Leaders outpace laggards

The results are based on a study of over a thousand large companies in 15 countries.

According to the authors of the report, “We show that these diversity winners are adopting systematic, business-led approaches to inclusion and diversity (I&D).

“And, with a special focus on inclusion, we highlight the areas where companies should take far bolder action to create a long-lasting inclusive culture and to promote inclusive behaviour.”

In the digital sector at least, based on the interviews we conducted, many companies say they are doubling down on their commitment to embedding diversity and inclusion into company culture.

A number of executives noted that the flexible working practices triggered by the pandemic will have a positive impact on female participation in the workforce. Many believe that the flexibility now built into the way we work will help them to attract and retain female talent.

While treating everyone equally is a sufficient good in itself, the business driver behind expanded programs is a growing recognition that companies with a diverse set of employees are more successful.

Better business results

According to Michelle Zatlyn, co-founder, President, and COO of Cloudflare, “More diverse organisations drive better business results and are a better place to work, so diversity is something that we really care about.”

Michelle Zatlyn, co-founder, President and COO of Cloudflare


And while International Women’s Day rightly focused on gender diversity, many of the leaders like Zatlyn we spoke to in preparation for this cover story also stressed dimensions such as racial, cultural, sexual orientation.

“Diversity comes in many forms — including gender, background, and ethnicity. Diverse teams that represent different backgrounds and viewpoints help us build better products and come up with solutions to hard challenges.”

The key theme to emerge though was the recognition that the COVID-19 crisis brought the issue of resilience to the top of company thinking, which in turn helped drive further reform.

According to Rose Leitch, Director of People, APAC for Procore, “Throughout the past 12 months, we have been strengthening our efforts to build an inclusive culture where everyone can thrive, do their best work, and feel valued.”

The company recently appointed a Chief People Officer, former LinkedIn and ServiceNow executive Pat Wadors, who is currently hiring a Head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIBs).

Rose Leitch, Director of People, APAC for Procore

Leitch told Which-50, “We’re calling the position DIBs because “belonging” is crucial to building a culture where all employees are empowered to realise their full potential. We have diversified our Board of Directors and recruited two women, revisited our employee calibration practices, and focused on hiring a workforce with more women and people of colour. We’ve also taken steps to ensure gender equity in the construction industry.”

Like a lot of other businesses, Procore paused all hiring early in the pandemic while it figured out what the impact would be on its business.

“We were all hands on deck, working in survival mode. This made it challenging to continue our focus on diversity through hiring efforts, such as increasing female participation, but gave us the opportunity to reevaluate our recruiting strategy,” she said.

Educating recruiters

However, as Australia recovered faster than other regions, and construction remained an essential industry, the local Procore organisation recovered quickly. “In the APAC region, our focus is now on increasing female participation, particularly in entry-level roles — which, in tech sales, are typically male-dominated and challenging to hire for. In an effort to diversify our hiring practices, we educate our hiring managers on all behaviour profiles that can suit various roles.”

Joan O’Reilly, Advisory Director, Inclusion and Diversity co-Chair, Avanade Australia

Joan O’Reilly, Advisory Director, Inclusion and Diversity co-Chair at Avanade Australia, said that despite the disruption and challenges of the last 12 months, the company reinforced its commitment to its people by enhancing things like parental leave benefits.

O’Reilly said, “This ensures all employees, regardless of gender, are supported in maintaining their career while raising a family.

“We also have our Women in STEM Scholarship program with Swinburne University, as well as our Avanade Leadership Program for Women (ALPW) that reinforce our commitment to invest in female talent and help them realise their full potential.”

Okta CIO Alvina Antar is another leader who says the pressures of the past 12 months have reinforced the importance of diversity and inclusion initiatives.

“With a global pandemic, racial injustices, and tragic violence, 2020 was a year of reckoning which led to radical transparency, critical conversations and further investments in this issue.”

Alvina Antar, Okta CIO

The company launched two new key initiatives promoting diversity and inclusion.

“At the end of 2020, we felt ready as an organisation to share our progress, talk about where we stand, and make commitments to improve on our own workforce demographics and inclusion initiatives. To this end, we released our first State of Inclusion report in December 2020.

“And, as with other companies, the pandemic conditions accelerated Okta’s transition to dynamic work: a framework in which we prioritise choice and flexibility, giving our employees the freedom to choose where and how they work best.”

Remote work

Prior to COVID-19, Antar said, 60 per cent of Okta’s new hires were located near an Okta office and spent much of their workdays working from there. That ratio has reversed over the last year and now 60 per cent of hires are not located near an Okta office. “Instead, [they] work primarily remotely.”

Okta is also making all candidate interviews remote going forward.

These shifts remove any physical barriers to entry and open up possibilities for a more diverse and inclusive workforce to be hired.

Dani Collins, Senior Manager of Employee Experience and Engagement within International Human Resources at Verizon, said, “In the broader global community, we have seen women disproportionately impacted by COVID due to the pressures of juggling work and home, especially when they are stood down, asked to take salary reductions, or requested to work reduced hours.”

Dani Collins, Senior Manager of Employee Experience and Engagement within International Human Resources, Verizon

According to Collins, the company also recognises the impacts of the pandemic on mental health in all segments of the community, but particularly among minority groups, the homeless population and LGBTQIA youth.

“We’ve also witnessed the impact of isolation on elderly members of the community, which was widely felt in the region when social distancing and lock-down restrictions were applied.”

This month, Collins said, Verizon Business will kick off a women’s program to provide resources, support, and content that will assist female employees and entrepreneurs.

“We’re also standing up a social campaign called #WomenOwnWednesdays — a weekly call to action for consumers to shop from and support women-owned SMBs.”

Anushka Wijendra, COO, MessageMedia, stressed that employee wellbeing is a key area of focus for her company. “We’ve been very conscious of people needing to integrate their home lives and work lives and having periods of transitions.

“During the height of COVID, we empowered employees to structure their days to deal with things like homeschooling and created a meeting free block throughout the day for people to focus on their wellbeing or personal commitments.”

Anushka Wijendra, COO, MessageMedia

There has been a considerable focus on work-life balance, and a willingness of leaders to accept the need to display vulnerability is a part of this approach. “Our leadership team often role model and talk about their lives outside of work which gives implicit permission to our employees to integrate the two in a way that makes sense for them.”

MessageMedia has also adjusted its flexible working policy.

“We anticipate that in a post-COVID world we will be moving to a hybrid workplace, where people will have a mix of the office and their home or another space of their choosing, as their workspace.”

She also stressed the business benefit. “As a tech employer, this makes us more desirable in attracting and retaining diverse talent.”

Advancing women

Cherie Ryan, VP and Regional Managing Director at Oracle, highlighted how Oracle started its Oracle Women’s Leadership (OWL) program in 2006 to develop, engage and empower current and future generations of women leaders at Oracle. And among the top tier of technology companies, Oracle is one of the few with a female CEO — Safra Catz — giving it additional credibility on the issue.

“Advancing women into leadership positions is an important goal for Oracle,” she said.

Cherie Ryan, VP and Regional Managing Director at Oracle

“While it started out as a grassroots program, over the last 15 years it has evolved into a global program dedicated to leadership development focused on building local OWL communities and fostering strategic partnerships, both internally and externally, to provide women employees with the resources to unlock their full potential.”

Like many tech and digital businesses, Oracle has specific initiatives that highlight the importance of IWD. “Each March, we create an internal IWD campaign and web site to raise awareness, create learning opportunities, and highlight a full day of activities across the globe that enable employees to participate in this important event and play an active role in creating a more equitable and inclusive workplace — and future.”

Some companies are taking a very direct approach to highlighting the importance of IWD. For staff at Progress, for instance, March 8 is a paid day off for its more than 1800 employees around the world.

According to Lilia Messechkova, VP, Core Products, Progress, “This is part of the Progress for Her program, an Employee Resource Group (ERG) in partnership with the Progress Inclusion and Diversity initiative, whose mission is to empower women by providing leadership and networking opportunities, as well as the tools needed to create substantial influence both in and out of their professional network.”

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