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Who is not sitting at the table with us? The success of diversity and inclusion hinges on a safe environment

January 04, 2023

Who is not sitting at the table with us? The success of diversity and inclusion hinges on a safe environment

"People who experience discrimination at work say nothing and resign" (De Tijd, 29 June). And although companies are keen to commit to inclusion and diversity, too often the so-called 'click' - with all the stereotypes and prejudices involved - is still the deciding factor in selecting an applicant (Broekroelofs, R. et al, 2022). Many people are marginalized as a result. But, in fact, diversity and inclusion serve as the driving force of change in our society. We would stagnate if we couldn't draw on a myriad of perspectives and backgrounds.

This is precisely why it is so important not only to be open to inclusion and diversity, but also to take conscious action, approach diverse groups and engage with them in open dialogue.

Inclusion and diversity are high on the agenda of Belgian companies and organizations - although critics dare to suggest that these are simply 'buzzwords'. We observe a lot of good intentions, but we are not there yet. It remains a complex issue for many, with multiple paradoxes. Companies and organizations often lack the knowledge, methods and tools to really drive inclusion and diversity forward.

"Who is not sitting at the table with us?" That question formed the approach of the fourth Dean's Club at Antwerp Management School (AMS). Leaders from the business community and education sector engaged in dialogue on the challenges posed by diversity and inclusion.

A focus on diversity and inclusion motivates and attracts employees

Unfortunately, discrimination during the recruitment process is nothing new. People with a Turkish name are less likely to be invited for job interviews than those with a Flemish name (Baert et al., 2017). Native Dutch people with a criminal record are more likely to receive a positive response to their letter of motivation than foreign applicants without a criminal record (Van Den Berg et al., 2017). Exclusion is more common than we think and goes further than discrimination based on a person's name or origin. Unconscious bias also creeps into the process.

It is human nature for us to be drawn towards people who look like us. Nonetheless, the research leaves no doubt: diversity and inclusion are indispensable in the workplace. Companies that consciously engage in diversity, equality and inclusion find it noticeably easier to attract, motivate and retain employees. Moreover, these companies often report higher productivity and profitability (SD Worx, 2022).

How do you create a tangible impact?

Inclusion and diversity are increasingly cropping up in policy reports, action plans and evaluations. But where do you start? What action can you take to make a difference?

A good starting point is to actively approach different communities and genuinely give talented individuals every opportunity to grow and develop in the organization. Creating a connection, being inquisitive and openly engaging in dialogue are key concepts in this regard. By actively listening, you can identify barriers and devise a solution.

The importance of role models - for current and potential employees - cannot be underestimated. Research specifically related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics; European Expert Network on Economics of Education, 2021) revealed that exposure to female role models has a positive effect on the identity match and self-confidence of young girls to aspire to a career in STEM. Role models must be given a platform in an authentic way - 'publicity stunts' are soon debunked.

Diversity and inclusion is not just an operational debate, it is also about communication. How vacancies are worded - the presence or absence of an inclusive tone - influences their reach. The same applies to internal communication: walk your talk.

Internally, companies and organizations need to create a sense of solidarity and uniqueness. People must feel part of the organization they work for because it values everyone's uniqueness. That may sound vague, but greater inclusion and diversity require a safe environment.

Need for culturally sensitive leaders

Building bridges starts in the classroom. If we want to make our companies and organizations more diverse and inclusive, education has a crucial role to play, from kindergarten to university and business schools too. In primary school, lessons on understanding and empathy reduce the risk of prejudice (Felten et al., 2022). By making students aware of a culturally sensitive mindset and offering scholarships to a diverse range of talented individuals, higher education can also strengthen its role as an active bridge builder.

If we want to bring diverse people to the table, we need to create opportunities for everyone. So that all talented individuals have a chance to flourish. This is where the manager has an important role to play. They must recognize the uniqueness of colleagues within a framework of solidarity. In doing so, it is indispensable to question your own mindset and be aware of bias. We all look at the world from a different perspective, and innovation actually springs from a combination of all these perspectives.

The greatest challenge involves daring to take our individual responsibility and action without being afraid to do so. This requires an environment where trust and nuance prevail, and where there is room for failure and continuous open dialogue.

"We are all in the same boat and we can leave no one behind," was how Izzeldin Abuelaish, Palestinian doctor and five-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, summed it up at the Dean's Club. We must not let fear guide us, he said. Take the example of the antelope and the lion. An antelope reaches a speed of 90 km/h, a lion 60 km/h. And yet the lion always manages to catch the antelope. Why? Because the antelope occasionally looks back out of fear.

Exclusion causes polarization and fear. Inclusion and diversity, on the other hand, spur us on to engage in dialogue, innovation and progress for all. Therefore, let us look forward together with an open mind, fail, and above all: engage in dialogue with those not yet sitting at the table with us.

Signatories:

  • Steven De Haes, Decaan, AMS
  • Izzeldin Abuelaish, Professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto
  • Eddy Annys, Managing Director, Randstad Group Belgium
  • Françoise Chombar, Chair Board of Directors, Melexis
  • Ilse Daelman, Managing Director AMS
  • Pierre De Strycker, Algemeen Directeur, POM Antwerpen
  • Sophie D’Haene, HR Director Corporate Services, Cartmundi
  • Bart Heyvaert, Group HR Director, Soudal
  • Mimi Lamote, Chair Alumni Board, AMS
  • Marc Lauwers, CEO, Argenta
  • Veerle Limbos, Director Structural Partnerships, AMS
  • Jan Matthys, Director Prevention & Health, bpost Group
  • Griet Peeraer, Professor, AMS
  • Michael Peeters, CEO, LAMMP
  • Jan Remeysen, CEO, BASF Antwerpen
  • Sabine Schellens, Directeur HR & Organisatieontwikkeling, Aquafin
  • Jan Suykens, Senior Advisor, Ackermans & Van Haaren
  • Anja Tys, Corporate Branding & Communication Manager, AMS
  • Johan Van Genechten, Board Member General Council, AMS
  • Anita Van Looveren, CEO, OM Partners
  • Jacques Vandermeiren, CEO, Port of Antwerp
  • Kathleen Van Gronsvelt, Assistant Professor, AMS
  • Wayne Visser, BASF Randstad Port of Antwerp Chair in Sustainable Transformation, AMS
  • Michael Wagemans, Head Sustainability, KPMG
  • Chris Wuytens, Managing Director, Acerta
Boogkeers campus AMS management school

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