Warning against “tick-box” approach to diversity and inclusion in the workplace at CMS Scotland event

Too many employers struggle to address diversity and inclusion in the workplace because they are following a tick-box approach, rather than focusing on a longer-term strategy and a commitment to changing culture and working collectively to create change, a roundtable discussion was told.

Ana Stewart, an entrepreneur and investor who wrote the Pathways Report for the Scottish Government, said a shift in culture and mindset was needed to make positive changes.

"It’s not just about understanding diversity, it’s about embracing inclusion. This is a much bigger challenge,” she told the roundtable, organised by law firm CMS. “It cannot be about tick-boxes, it’s about an action-focused commitment to changing culture.”

Stewart said robust evidence and data transparency are at the root of any meaningful change. Recognising and accepting the scale of the challenge enables organisations to take more proportionate, positive interventions.

“Robust data is at the basis of everything,” she argued. “In the long run, it will bear fruit - because diversity of ideas and thought creates business benefits.”

Stewart was co-author of the Pathways Report, which focused on increasing female participation and growth in entrepreneurship in Scotland. Only 2p in every £1 of institutional investment in Scotland currently goes to female-led businesses.

The report has now broadened into Pathways Forward, which takes a wider view of diversity and inclusion in the entrepreneurial community and beyond. It was created in response to "extensive public and private sector engagement and momentum generated by the Pathways Report".

Stewart said that positive changes to make workforces more diverse and culturally inclusive required honesty and long-term thinking by organisations – and collaboration within and across business sectors. At the moment, too many organisations were looking at their own approach, in a very siloed way and not sharing good practice.

“Pathways is not about calling out bad practice. Its focus is on collaboration and making positive changes to improve outcomes,” said Stewart.

Some suggested that a strong focus on targets and labelling, especially by big business, had been negative for the promotion of diversity and inclusion.  Corporates were accused of losing their capacity to be curious, and making their people less likely to ask questions, by focusing on numbers and metrics.

Two clear examples were given from financial services: a survey trumpeting an increase in the number of female start-ups when the proportion was actually unchanged; and claims of gender parity in the financial services workforce when most women are employed in the back office and aren’t making it through to a senior level.

The roundtable highlighted the crucial importance of role models in enhancing diversity and inclusion. White, straight, educated, middle-class men will always have role models, particularly at the most senior levels, it was argued.

For those who are the role models and pioneers for minority groups, the weight of expectation can be very significant. Often, they don't want to be labelled. While the Holy Grail is reaching a place where differences do not matter, there is still a strong tendency to label people.

There was a strong view around the table that leaders should be leaders, not female leaders, gay leaders, or ethnic minority leaders - and agreement that it was always under-represented minorities who were expected to ‘fix’ the problem. Those white, straight, educated, middle-class men must be engaged in the journey because they are a big part of the solution.

Ana Stewart said there was an imperative to act quickly. She explained: “People say to me, ‘It’s just a generational thing, Ana’ and things will change. But I’m worried about future generations; recent research from both the UK and US has flagged up bigger headwinds, including the pressure on young men to think they are losing out, and the influence of people like Andrew Tate.”

Rather than being fixated on metrics, labels and big policy statements, Stewart thought the way to secure greater diversity and inclusion was for all organisations to collaborate in taking small steps, to deliver a large collective impact more quickly.

“I’m seeing cohorts of organisations across multiple sectors coming together through the Pathways Pledge initiative and being incredibly open,” she said. “There is real honesty, transparency and positive intent.

“It’s an evolution of getting cohorts of organisations together to agree on what actions they can take, in addition to the work they are doing and how to measure these actions - then tracking and sharing the results .

“I’m just a facilitator - systemic change is needed, with more people who have the appetite and empathy to be actively engaged getting on board. It’s not just about diversity training, it’s about a real understanding of what inclusion means and how to achieve it.”

Allan Wernham, Managing Director of CMS Scotland, said: "Diversity and Inclusion is very important to CMS as a business. We aim to create an environment and a culture where everyone can be themselves. In Scotland our partnership is nearing 50/50 men and women, our engagement in improving social mobility is good, but like other businesses, we still have a lot to do in some areas.”

To find out more about the work of CMS go to cms.law/scotland.