How We Got Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion All Wrong

How We Got Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion All Wrong

Workplaces are constantly trying to catch up with the latest best practices in fostering an environment of Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion, where people experience a sense of belonging, are being respected and are being listened to. We have witnessed organisations in Cyprus and Europe making attempts to become more diverse and inclusive. Yet, what is it that keeps them from truly fostering a working environment that allows everyone to thrive and develop regardless of their identity or background? 

According to a recent McKinsey report, the workplace experience is still not the same for everyone. Women, for example, are still experiencing the same challenges they did 30 years ago. They are more likely to experience microaggressions that undermine their authority and signal that it will be harder for them to get promoted. They often receive comments that question their judgement or imply that they aren’t qualified for their jobs. Organisations are claiming that they embrace diversity and inclusion. However, their offices are not easily accessible for people with disabilities. People who identify as LQBTQ+ engage in “covering” behaviours to avoid harassment or discrimination. Women leaders are more likely to report that personal characteristics, such as their gender or being a parent, have played a role in them being denied or passed over for a raise or promotion. The list goes on. 

Understanding DEI

Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) exists to identify and address the root-causes of discrimination and inequality within the workplace. The goal of DEI is to eliminate bias and exclusionary practices that hinder the well-being and development of the employees. DEI seeks to create workplaces that benefit everyone and ensures that our products and services also embody these values. So, you may ask, isn’t this simply common sense? Isn’t it just about implementing responsible business practices? Well, yes. But, we’re going about it all wrong. 

There are various misconceptions about DEI that have led to inefficient and underwhelming implementation. Some believe that it exists to make people feel better at work, and that hiring a Chief DEI Officer can help ‘’hand hold’’ the organisation through various training and awareness activities. Others believe that DEI exists to protect the company legally and reputationally, or that it represents a marketing opportunity to communicate the organisation’s commitment to inclusion and equality. While these aspects play a role, they are just a small piece of the puzzle. DEI goes far beyond this.

Achieving DEI is not possible unless both leaders and teams understand what DEI is working for. Implementing DEI requires a comprehensive and horizontal approach across the organisation that brings everyone on board with substantial leadership support. It necessitates dedicating sufficient resources to drive meaningful change that goes beyond fulfilling quotas, flexible work schemes, and (sorry but…) Pizza Fridays.

What DEI is not

DEI is not solely the responsibility of the human resources department (wait, what?!). It’s not about hiring more women or people with underrepresented identities just to improve numbers. It’s not about making fancy statements only on Women’s Day or about introducing policies on gender-based violence and sexual harassment only after incidents happened. And it’s definitely not about isolated efforts and training without any follow through.

The human case

DEI requires diving into meaningful and honest conversations between teams and leaders by asking the “difficult” questions. What does diversity and inclusion mean to them? How can we do better as an organisation? What are our blind spots? Who are we excluding? 

To make meaningful strides in achieving diversity, equality and inclusion, it is crucial to genuinely engage in active listening with our staff and colleagues. We must acknowledge their diverse experiences and needs, and be genuinely willing to adapt our communication style, our strategies, and procedures to effectively resonate with our target audience.

Lily Zheng, DEI Strategist and Consultant, states that “Most leadership inaction on DEI emerges not from a failure of empathy, but from a failure of imagination. Leaders simply can't imagine an organisation that's better for everyone—including them—and accordingly see every change effort as an attempt to invert the status quo of haves and have-nots. Their inability to imagine abundance leads them to assume scarcity, instead.” 

We must challenge this scarcity mindset and imagine a workplace that benefits everyone. By doing so, we can create a culture of belonging and inclusivity.

To conclude with a quote I recently heard from one of my favourite podcasts: “There’s something bigger than the business case of diversity, equality, inclusion, and belonging at work. It’s the human case. How good do we want to be with and for each other?” (Podcast Dare to Lead, Brene Brown). 

So, how good do you want to be with and for each other?

Panagiota Polykarpou is a Gender Equality Specialist & Non-profit Leader. Her interests focus on gender and equality, diversity and inclusion in organisations. In 2020, she co-founded the first digital content platform for gender equality in Cyprus called “Thkio Logia” (Θκυο Λόγια) and furthermore co-authored the book “A book about equality – A few words for a big change”. By 2022, the campaign had received the NGO CSW65 Young Feminist Award as one of the top 20 initiatives globally committed to gender equality, reached 500k+ people, and sold over 2,000 copies of the books translated in Greek, English and Turkish.

She is also the co-founder of “Girls in STEAM Academy” in Cyprus, which is an initiative that strives to close the gap in the underrepresentation of women and girls in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) fields. 

The combination of these efforts resulted in the launch of Be an Ally Foundation, an organisation which Panagiota runs today. Βe an Ally Foundation is a social catalyst for equality, diversity and inclusion and aims to change the discourse of equality in Cyprus by implementing initiatives that focus on inclusive practices and serve civil society as well as public and private organisations.

In 2022, Panagiota was one of the members of the Youth Parliament serving on the Committee of Human Rights & Gender Equality. She has also served as a mentor for students and young girls in Junior Achievement Cyprus and STEMi Africa. She is a Board Member of AIPFE - Women of Europe and Gardens of the Future.

Panagiota is currently based in Vienna working as a Consultant for Gender Equality at Yellow Window Belgium. She is also pursuing a master’s in Social Innovation & management at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, WU Executive Academy.