When it comes to advancing women, existing corporate strategies generally aren’t working.

But this new program just might get us where we need to be.


BY Rhea Seymour

Over the past decade, corporations have been increasing their focus, commitment and spend on diversity and inclusion efforts to eradicate the gender gap, but those efforts aren’t working.  The growth of women in senior executive roles has been stagnant over the last five years. What does that mean? Corporations, and women, are growing tired and many refer to feeling “diversity fatigue.”

The economy is competitive, and the corporations who get gender diversity right are thriving. So why isn’t everyone getting it right? Because they don’t have the right solutions.

“The most widely used initiative to advance women in a corporation is the internal women’s group, even though research proves that is, sadly, the least effective initiative in terms of results,” says Carolyn Lawrence, CEO of Women of Influence Inc.

Deloitte is one of the leading companies when it comes to gender diversity—an achievement that has saved the company millions in turnover costs. Not only is it using the right solutions, now the company is teaching them.

The latest solution: “Inclusion Labs.” The one-day sessions originated at the Leadership Centre for Inclusion at Deloitte University, the company’s hub for technical and skills training in Westlake, Texas, and are now moving to other select Deloitte offices, including those in Toronto.

How is This New?

Deloitte created Inclusion Labs in March 2013 to help clients develop, refine or improve their diversity and inclusion strategies, or to solve specific challenges, such as the recruitment of women or the retention of visible minorities. Set in a light, airy space, with no note taking allowed (a stenographer records the sessions) and BlackBerrys tucked away, there are no overhead projections, but the day includes many small group discussions, as well as individual participation.

“This is not a workshop,” says Christine Smith, Managing Principal, Deloitte University Leadership Centre for Inclusion. “It’s a consciously designed environment to get people up and moving and in a different kind of dialogue to find common ground.” Groups explore issues such as barriers to promotion, deeply held but unknown biases, and ingrained stereotypes of men and women. “The focus is truly on inclusion,” says Smith. “It’s not an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ or ‘women’ versus ‘men.’ It’s about creating an environment where all talent can thrive.”

The unique approach resonated with a team from Johnson & Johnson, who took part in an Inclusion Lab at the Leadership Centre last fall. “You’re not in a boring classroom where you’re bombarded with a PowerPoint presentation,” says Peter Vermeulen, Vice President, Human Resources and Diversity and Talent Management in New Brunswick, N.J. “You take people out of their usual busy environment and get together in an innovative atmosphere which helps you challenge each other, share and shape ideas and really accelerate thinking.”

Smith tailored the Johnson & Johnson lab to meet Vermeulen’s last-minute request to incorporate the eight success factors for diversity that he’d recently read about in the Harvard Business Review article Great Leaders Who Make the Mix Work. “She did it in such a fun way,” recalls Vermeulen. She asked the team how they were doing in each of those eight success categories, having them answer on a spectrum of “1: We’re really not good at this and it’s hurting us” to “5: We are very strong in this area – it’s a strategic advantage.” The spectrum was laid out on the floor, so participants voted with their physical presence on a square. “It was really thought-provoking and gave us an immediate understanding of where we really were on an issue,” says Vermeulen.

Achieving group awareness and alignment – one of the goals of the Lab – often involves journeying into part of the lab process Smith calls “complete chaos.” “It’s chaotic and everyone is throwing out answers,” she says. “The process brings an element of disruption and innovation into exploring what inclusion means for each participant. It personalizes it.” By the end of the day, the goal is for participants to see the problem for what it really is and arrive at solutions. “In eight hours, we’re able to condense what can be a five- or six-week process of going out and talking to stakeholders.”

Rooted in Research

Until recently, diversity, or inclusion, in corporate North America has largely meant the introduction of a program or initiative (such as quotas, hiring practices or segmented initiatives) rather than a cultural, environmental and leadership mind shift to think about inclusion more broadly and embrace differences as a strategic advantage, says Smith. “While programs and initiatives are hugely valuable, if that’s all you have, that’s not going to advance the ball. I think accountability is what is lacking and why we see stalling at the top in the numbers [of women at seniors levels].”

The Inclusion Lab is an accountability exercise. Deloitte conducts interviews of participants ahead of time and gathers pertinent statistics from the participating company, such as how many women have been hired in recent years, promotions of women compared to men and compensation gaps. “Becoming aware of those diversity metrics is a real eye opener,” says Deloitte partner Jane Allen, former Chief Diversity Officer in Toronto. “You might say men and women are treated equally, but when you look at the data, the gaps in the metrics are much more than you thought they’d be.”

Deloitte was in that very position eight years ago when Allen spearheaded an analysis of gender imbalance at the Toronto office. “The broad assumption was that we didn’t have as many women in leadership roles because women didn’t come back after they took maternity leave.” But a closer look at hiring and promotion practices revealed that wasn’t the case. “When women left, we replaced them with men. If we’d aimed all of our efforts at getting people to come back after maternity leave, it would have been a waste of resources.”  The analysis revealed a valuable lesson: “You can’t make decisions and assign resources based on assumptions that haven’t been tested,” says Allen.

Even when companies are aware of a gender gap or issue, they may need help to make sense of it. “We have a lot of data on diversity and inclusion, but we didn’t have the insights we needed,” says Vermeulen. For example, traditionally Johnson & Johnson has sent promising employees to leadership development courses, but Deloitte’s analysis revealed that cross-country or cross-sector experience is the biggest career accelerator. “Based on these new insights, we need to think more holistically about how we develop people,” he says. “It’s not necessarily sending them to the right leadership course. It may be tapping people on the shoulder to see if they’re interested in cross-sector experience [at J&J, that might mean consumer and medical products, for example] or cross-country experience.”

A Road Map to Diversity

At the end of the Lab session, Deloitte provides a detailed report of everything that was said and done to capture everyone’s point of view and creates an actionable plan with first and future steps. “I was hoping to get an 18- to 24-month plan,” says Vermeulen. “But we left with a five-year plan for diversity and inclusion.” Deloitte offers advisory services to kick-start the initiatives identified in the road map, but “the value of the lab is they can leave with a road map that they can execute without us,” says Smith.

To date six companies have participated in Deloitte’s Inclusion Labs (with 10 scheduled for 2014), primarily corporations with the resources to put behind diversity and inclusion. “We’re starting to see smaller- and medium-sized companies too,” says Allen. “They don’t have a lot of money for advisory services, but the one-day lab is more in keeping with what they can afford.”

And well worth it when companies consider what they stand to lose: “They want to address diversity because smart women aren’t staying with them or attracted to their company,” says Allen. “They’re starting to see that there are enormously talented women within their business or the marketplace whose talents aren’t being realized.”

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