If you really want a diverse workforce, think smaller

Raise your hand, raise your voice.
Raise your hand, raise your voice.
Image: Reuters/Tami Chappell
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After watching creative industries take on diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives over the past two decades of my career, it feels like there’s been a lot of movement.

The marketing, communications, and advertising industries certainly are more aware of the problems today. Employers are more openly addressing issues. Employees feel like they’re more empowered.

But in reality, there is much, much more work that needs to be done. One study shows that 88% of creative industry employees are white, a number that’s stalled in recent years. Less than a third of global agency leaders are women. In the public-relations industry specifically, there are very similar trends, with almost nine of 10 employees being white. And while more two-thirds of PR professionals are women, more than 70% of the PR agencies they work at are helmed by men.

These diversity stats show just one part of the problem—the inclusion efforts are just as bad. Another survey found that only roughly half of people of color in creative fields feel like their contributions are valued at work, compared to almost two-thirds of their white counterparts. Twice as many people of color cited a lack of tools and resources as hindering their advancement.

And still, these numbers barely scratch the surface.

The calls for diversity, inclusion, and equity have reached a fever pitch across fields and within companies. But what I’m finding is that many brands are only interested in these efforts if there’s a fancy award to be won—or a negative exposé to get ahead of. Few companies are actually dedicated to creating lasting change within their ranks when nobody’s watching.

If we really want to create a workforce that’s more diverse, inclusive, and equitable across the board, reactive, one-time company initiatives won’t do much. It’s about the smaller and more proactive day-to-day actions that make all the difference and create a permanent culture shift.

In a survey from Boston Consulting Group, employees from underrepresented backgrounds overwhelmingly said they care about more employers and team members confronting pervasive day-to-day bias than just creating shiny, new initiatives.

But can one person at a company—especially someone not at the top of the ladder—really make that much of a difference?

I’m here to say a resounding yes.

Here are steps everyone within a company can take to create more diversity, inclusion, and equity starting now. And remember, the actions of a few can grow into the actions of many.

1. Say something (anything!) in meetings

I can’t even begin to describe how often diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts of all shapes and sizes are dashed during meetings. Whether it’s your daily team standup or a huge client presentation, meetings are the time to publicly make your voice heard and question what’s happening.

While saying something during a weekly department meeting may seem trivial, those small moments are the ones that add up to create large, company-wide change. Making sure all of your co-workers get to speak up, and reeling in those who speak too often or over other people, can transform that way the people around you operate.

2. Give credit where it’s due

It is important to uplift the work of those who are underrepresented, just as it is important to question when someone’s efforts regarding diversity, inclusion, and equity are lacking.

The next time you’re doing a team debrief or sitting in on a client call, offer words of praise and encouragement to a team member whose contributions have otherwise gone unnoticed. Even doing this via Slack or email can make a difference. When you make it a habit, you make it the standard for everyone.

3. Question the makeup of your teams

One of the most common situations I see where diversity, inclusion, and equity is overlooked is when it comes to how teams and groups are assembled. This is where a lot of inequity can fester and create long-term problems for not just your department but your company at large.

The next time you’re assembling a team to take on a new project, initiative, or client, ask yourself if you feel like the right people are being brought onto that project. Who’s constantly tagged in? Who’s consistently excluded? The sooner you find the answers and then advocate for underrepresented and underutilized team members, the quicker you can create real change and encourage other people to do it, too.

4. Challenge authority figures

Whether it’s talking to your boss during a one-on-one or vocally criticizing a company executive, it’s important to privately and publicly challenge leadership within your company to do better. Oftentimes, diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts spring from a place of accountability. But the goal is hard to meet unless employees come together to put in the work.

Again, talking about diversity, inclusion, and equity doesn’t need to happen with a single, large campaign; just speaking up day-to-day when you see an area to improve can make a difference. The next time your boss makes an insensitive comment or doesn’t listen to ideas from certain team members, say something—and offer a solution.

5. Use leadership credentials for good

Whether you’re a first-time manager or up in the C-suite, when you’re in a position of power, you have even more leverage to make diversity, inclusion, and equity at work a reality. Lead by example on your team. Ask the questions everyone else is afraid to ask about what your company could do better. Talk to employees who aren’t putting diversity, inclusion and equity at the forefront of their work, and actively and praise those who do. And explore your own bias—where can you improve?

And when you feel other workplace priorities getting in the way of your efforts on this, remember: If not you, then who?