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There has never been this much focus by Corporate SA on inclusion, and the language of diversity and inclusion is now so much more robust. However, gender is but one component of a deeper discussion of diversity.
Today, at any level of the banking sector from top to bottom, there is seldom a meeting where a woman will find herself the only woman in the room. Nevertheless, good as that progress has been, it is not to say it couldn’t be better or is even at the level it should be. However, in some respects, South Africa can be said to be better versed in the conversation about equality, representation and fair playing fields.
I had concerns as to what the pandemic would change, given that such events have historically pushed marginalised groups backwards. They act like reset buttons which reverse many gains such groups have made, as dominant groups respond by pulling together to protect what they have or give preference to the traditional group think.
For example, the global financial crisis in 2007/8 came at a time when transformation was coming onto the agenda, and that momentum was de-prioritised for some years as companies’ management felt they had bigger concerns of survival.
Though women in so many respects have borne the brunt of economic and social losses stemming from the pandemic, transformation and sustainability around the world had built up such momentum as to be persistent – so that the gains made by women in the corporate environment this time round feel like they were not significantly lost. Such was the scale and impact of the pandemic that it brought out a sense of humanity in people, and for this reason, as well as the pervasive ESG agenda, transformation remained an engaged and important conversation. If anything, these social issues, the significance of structural racism and gender bias, got noisier as the pandemic progressed reinforcing a sense that the time for inclusion and belonging can no longer be delayed.
The global financial crisis had also previously demonstrated that diverse teams outperformed their homogenous competitors. It showed that better ideas come from teams where members demonstrate real difference and that diverse notions of upbringing, education, values and thought have significant benefit. Diversity does not relate only to race or gender – a transformed team can nonetheless all have the same background and experiences. True diversity requires intersectionality: a group of people so varied in backgrounds, knowledge and ideas.
A move to intersectionality
While the presence of women in leadership teams and boards of directors is a start towards the goal of achieving diversity, this is one factor. The real goal is a far more sophisticated approach to multi-culturalism and that of intersectionality.
Intersectionality considers different systems of oppression, and specifically how they overlap and are compounded. Focusing on women does not solve the broader systemic problem, but having targets set for women across the organisation is an important initial step. Representation is key to transformation, but it must be accompanied by inclusion (changing behaviour) and belonging (the sense that you can be yourself and feel like part of a community). This is the true alchemy of intersectionality, where the platform of inclusion and belonging will drive organisations meaningfully forward to equity and equality.
Creating a workplace culture that values intersectionality is not possible without true buy-in from leadership, which is reflected in actions and policies. Building a workplace that prioritises intersectionality requires ongoing education and awareness – and organic education where such topics can be brought into everyday conversations without risk of repercussions or judgment. Organisations need to transition from intent to action and while we need to go further than the gender conversation – it is certainly the first step.
The pandemic has upset many conventional wisdoms and given pause to rethink many issues. The move to intersectionality is one of them – as we focus on rebuilding with diversity, inclusion and belonging at its core.