Leaders need to ‘disrupt their denial’ to get diversity and inclusion right

March 26, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

For a while now, Netflix has shown commitment to raising the bar on diversity & inclusion (D&I). Besides having women lead its original content to dominate the streaming wars, the tech giant has lined up a roster of D&I heavy hitters—including Vernā Myers, activist Darnell L. Moore, and former NFL player Wade Davis—to tackle inclusion and diversity issues across the entire company.

Last December it added Michelle P. King, former head of UN Women’s Integrated Strategy for Gender Innovation & Global Innovation Coalition for Change, to head its inclusion efforts.

King, who also authored The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Hold Women Back at Work, spoke to Fortune about which D&I efforts are not purely cosmetic, what it takes to effectively change workplace cultures, and why leaders, although well-intentioned, need to step out of their denial to get diversity and inclusion right.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When it comes to cultivating D&I in the workplace, what are some of the things that work versus some things that are just window dressing?

There’s a real disconnect nowadays in terms of the solutions that typical diversity and inclusion programs put forward—like unconscious-bias training or women-focused development initiatives, such as mentoring and leadership programs—and the actual issues women face in the workplace. These solutions don’t address the problem we’re trying to solve, which is day-to-day experiences of inequality. To face them, leaders should be held accountable for the cultures that they create, especially when they reward, endorse, or support behaviors that marginalize and discriminate against women and minorities. 

Which specific actions have shown to be working?

The power of storytelling can help leaders and employees understand the lived experience of inequality. The companies that are seeing progress are enrolling leaders as champions and [asking] employees to identify solutions that make sense to their organization. And that might be just thinking through how to be allies in day-to-day moments. Every organization is in a different sort of phase in this journey. Some have complete denial, and you need to disrupt that. Ultimately, it’s up to the leaders to champion the change to enroll people in it.

Does an example come to mind?

When Mike Emerson was at LinkedIn, he was the SVP of sales. I talk about this in my book. What he ended up with after a three-year journey was an organization where women were much more equally represented—I think was around 40% to 42% in leadership roles. And it was sustainable because they had an environment that was welcoming to women and that harnessed their capabilities as leaders. The thing is, you can copy-paste a woman into a leadership position, but there’s no guarantee she’s going to be valued, and there’s no guarantee she’s going to stay. Target-based approaches just simply don’t work and may lead to tokenism. 

Have you seen someone who had a really narrow view of a particular group or population truly change? What worked?

I dealt with a male partner at a financial services organization who did not believe that women faced any challenges. It was imperative to disrupt his denial. And so, I said, “Do me a favor and just reach out to women in your workplace who you trust.” When he did that, he got an absolute outpouring of how challenging it was to be a woman in this work environment. These women were experiencing discrimination, marginalization, sexism, sexual harassment—it just kind of poured out. Right now he is leading and championing equality in the workplace.

Why is it necessary to “disrupt denial”? What does it imply?

Most of us are in denial. We’re asking women to live up to this outdated “Don Draper” ideal—like a 1960s man who engages in behaviors that are exclusionary, dominant, competitive, and aggressive. But it’s sometimes not that obvious. I share examples from my own career—everything from managers telling me that they hate working with women to being asked to wash dishes because I was the only woman. That’s why outlining the barriers is so important. You begin to see the typical challenges you’re likely to encounter at different points in your career. 

You headed the UN Women Global Innovation Coalition for Change to help the innovation market work better for women. What are you bringing to the table from that experience?

The aim was to really bring together 35 to 50 partners to look at how to get more women and girls in the innovation and tech sector. How do you effectively make gender equality a part of the innovation cycle so that really involves having woman embedded as part of that team? How are you ensuring that you meet women’s needs as you’re innovating? 

It let me experience the power of convening—bringing together different parties. One thing that was very clear is that all businesses are affected as they tackle this issue. The aim was very much to make inclusion the way these workplaces work. I loved that.

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