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A few months ago, I started writing a series of posts on diversity and inclusion. I’ve described how diversity is the first step on a journey toward the goal of an inclusive corporate culture. I’ve cited studies that show that multiple points of view within a workplace increase innovation and offer employees a competitive advantage. I wrote about how a global company can build a high-performing and inclusive workplace.
I am not, I admit, an expert on diversity and inclusion, but I am passionate about the subject and am one of its champions at my company, PAREXEL, a clinical-research organization whose mission is to advance the success of biopharmaceutical and medical-device companies in preventing and curing diseases.
To assure that diversity and inclusion would become a corporate value in our workplace, we hired an expert, Aida Sabo, and created a new role for her—vice president of diversity. Aida joined PAREXEL from Cardinal Health; previously, she had worked at EMC and Agilent. She started her career as a defense engineer at Hewlett Packard. Aida is a well-known leader and a highly sought-after speaker.
I caught up with Aida on the phone just after Catalyst’s recent New York City board meeting. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
What do you say to executives who view diversity and inclusion as human resource issues rather than business issues?
I usually ask, “What kind of company do you want to be?” If you’re going to be a company that is profitable, innovative, and focused on the future—a company that attracts the best talent—then you’d better understand that diversity and inclusion are about revenues.
Diversity fuels innovation. Research shows heterogeneous groups outperform homogeneous groups. When I was at HP, I worked with futurist Joel Barker, who helped me understand that paradigm shifts occur at the intersection of differences. Diversity assures new ideas and different points of view.
Diversity makes your company less vulnerable to the marketplace and helps you avoid blind spots. For example, if only men are working on strategy or new product development, they will be blind to women’s points of view
Diversity means you understand the workforce is changing. The future workforce is more female, more global, and must be, by necessity, more diverse.
If you think diversity and inclusion are human resources issues, then you fail to see the fundamental truth. Diversity is about business.
You’ve worked for major corporations in different industries. Given those experiences, what does success look like in diversity and inclusion?
Silicon Valley has been in the news for not being diverse enough. Yet, technology companies hire more women for top leadership positions than life sciences companies despite the fact that fewer women graduate with engineering degrees. Technology companies like Facebook and Google understand they need women because women use their products.
In the defense industry, companies such as Raytheon, Lockheed-Martin, and Northrup Grumman have made diversity a priority because their traditional, mostly male engineering workforce is aging, and they need U.S. citizens who can pass security clearances. These companies invest heavily in minorities, women, and the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. They also run aggressive diversity programs.
Lockheed-Martin won the 2014 Catalyst Award for its “Women Accelerating Tomorrow” initiative, a series of programs, processes, and tools to support women’s advancement. This was part of a bigger strategic effort to attract, develop, and retain diverse talent in a highly technical and engineering-focused industry. Lockheed also initiated Catalyst’s Men Advocating Real Change (MARC) program, a program that helps make men champions of gender equality.
Finally, Ernst & Young has launched a program where the C-suite takes ownership of creating a sponsorship program to build the future leaders of diversity. The program focuses on women and ethnic minorities, and has been so successful they’ve been named one of FORTUNE magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work for in the U.S.” and are also a top-ten company in Working Mothers magazine.
What do you see as the next challenge for supporting women in the workforce?
We need to do more to help companies so they will want to hire women, even in their childbearing years. It’s a big challenge that we haven’t figured out yet.
To be clear, I’m not saying it’s just about women. It’s also men when they become fathers. We need to support both men and women as they start having families and we need to understand we will see many variations of the traditional family that will need our support.
What are the greatest challenges in creating a diverse and inclusive workforce in a global company?
There is no way a global company can be successful if they’re not leveraging 100 percent of their talent. If you’re a global company, then you need to find ways to relate to people who are from different geographies and different cultures.
In a high-performing company, everyone is high performing. You are advancing men and women from around the world equally. You are not favoring one culture over another.
If, as a company, you are only advancing the men or the women, or the people from one culture, then you are creating micro-inequalities—people will notice and won’t work as effectively. At that point, your company is no longer high performing.
What is your approach to diversity and inclusion at PAREXEL?
We’re working on helping people throughout the company understand that diversity and inclusion is about innovation and competitiveness. It’s also about creating the most amazing place to work.
We know there are parts of the company that are male-dominated and others that are female-dominated. In both cases, we can and should add other genders for the sake of innovation. This is a challenge that we need to address, and we are working with academic researchers to gain perspective on our workforce.
I am focused on the men. They need to be our allies and champion diversity and inclusion. We need them to help us create a better environment.
What are some strategies you recommend for companies that want to create a culture that embraces diversity and inclusion?
First, get men in the game. Help the men in your company understand that they can be part of the solution and not seen as part of the problem. We need both men and women to be champions of diversity and inclusion. In my experience, men want to be part of the solution, but in many cases, they may not even understand the challenges women face in male-dominated environments. Once they understand, they become the biggest champions of the movement.
Second, partner with organizations that have been doing research on these topics. I mentioned Catalyst, but the Center for Talent Innovation, Harvard’s Kennedy School, and MIT Sloan are also excellent resources. It’s also worth looking at successful companies outside your industry. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Third, understand your data. Leverage big data for people outcomes. Study that data and know it. Learn what works and what doesn’t and, of course, correct as needed.
Finally, understand that inclusion is a journey. It doesn’t happen overnight and it’s not easy. But the work is worth doing because we need to value and respect everyone, and the world is moving too fast for us not to leverage all of our talent.
Workplace and Culture