Diversity at work is a lady dog

The chairman of a billion dollar tech firm described senior hires like me as “irritants required to produce pearls”. Ahem. Personally, I’d prefer to be called a “change agent”. Diversity takes many forms. If your organization generally has long-standing employees in top management and you introduce an ‘outsider’ into the team, that is a type of diversity – of thinking and culture. While it might be good for the organization, it isn’t very comfortable for either the individual or the rest of the team.

And hence today’s headline. (Ok there are other reasons for this headline, but I’ll share that at the end of this newsletter.)

Why is diversity at work irritating?

We like people like us. Or, more accurately, people we think are more like us.

And how do we decide someone is like us without a detailed bio-data and deep interview? We look for shortcuts. My daughter assumes that anyone who likes Naruto (an anime character) is a good person. H&M has cashed in on this with a Naruto hoodie so that like-minded people can find each other. Now of course, adults wouldn’t be that simple.  Or would they?

We like people from our college

two people wearing IIM hoodies
IIM Alumni

Just watch two people wearing an IIM Calcutta hoodie meet by chance! The conversation will immediately turn to the tyre, the jetty, mohan-da, and the last meeting with LeenChats. The bond will supersede any variations in gender, race, age across the participants and leave them liking each other.

Shortcuts are a brain’s coping mechanism. The brain uses easily available cues to make fast decisions. Great when you are deciding on the spot whether that stranger with the spear is an ally or planning to eat you for dinner. Not so good if you’re trying to hire a diverse team.

When we can’t use shortcuts to automate a process, our brain has to work harder. Worse, despite the effort, we may not like the other person. We may acknowledge that a person is a whizz with finances and take her advice on our investment but – because we can’t find anything in common with our spendthrifty-retail-therapy-addicted selves, we won’t like her.

Diversity at work requires a change in thinking. And money.

diverse people
Diversity at Work

In one company I worked with, a long-running “jokes” newsletter had to be hastily retired after the newly appointed legal head threatened to sue the author as the jokes were sexist. Mind you, she was added to the mailing list as a gesture of inclusivity. Another organization had to hastily develop a paternity policy after a male sales head announced a child with his same-sex partner. Maternity leave, paternity leave, accessibility ramps, childcare, sabbaticals, dress codes, optional holidays, diet options — the list is long.

In engineering college we drank copious quantities of tea, mostly because it was free in our canteen. When I joined Tata Elxsi and could sip tea in white-with-gold-rims Tata Ceramics cups it was really a taste of luxury. By the time I joined Wipro, IT companies offered a variety of complimentary beverages – various types of coffee, tea, cocoa and Horlicks. Wondering what this has to do with diversity? Ah yes. We welcomed our new batch of ‘fresh’ – mostly young – MBAs and were greeted with the question of “don’t we have proper beverages?” They were looking for a can of Coke. It took us a while to accept that change.

I attended a meeting on the “director’s floor” of an organization before the “woman-independent-director’ rule was brought in.Looking high and low for the women’s toilet I could only find a urinal.The security guard  I asked was most logical – there are no women directors and there never will be so why would there be a toilet?

My husband’s erstwhile startup had to move to an office with a second toilet before they could hire women. I discovered that along with the loss of our fancy guest towels and soaps which were taken to make the loo more attractive to their new employees 🙂

There is a cost – of time, transformation and money – to incorporate diversity. Whether the company should fit the bill or society which is the biggest beneficiary is the discussion for another newsletter. Diversity of any sort – not just gender – is a learning process.

So why bother with diversity?

In the same way that the careful financial genius we have nothing in common with is all that stands between us and poverty in our old age, often we need skillsets that are mutually exclusive with our own. I struggled to understand a certain boss whose favourite phrase was MECE ie every problem definition should be mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive. If we don’t have a diverse set of people it’s hard to see things from multiple perspectives. We will be stunted intellectually and as organizations if we don’t bring in new thoughts and ideas ie the irritant is necessary.

Another angle is our customers. A diverse group of decision-makers are more likely to represent what your customers want. Corporates don’t have to like or agree with their customers, but they do have to understand them. Research and immersion can help, but true magic is when that is combined with diversity.

The dimensions and volume of diversity at work depend on the breadth of your business. The smaller and more homogenous your customers are, the less diversity you need. You should still do diversity – will explain why in a bit.

Does diversity at work help marketing?

Yes. Marketing is changing at a tremendous speed and new ideas are dispersed by every dimension of diversity – geography, age, language, family composition. Mr Beast has a full time team of six to do thumbnails for his videos! If that doesn’t trigger a bunch of thoughts – and frantic googling – amongst the marketers, I’m surprised.

I started listening to Joe Rogan podcasts before starting my own – the reccos for podcasts come from a whatsapp group I’m a member of. Rihanna and Kylie Jenner channelized their differences to launch beauty products, as did Shehnaaz Hussain, Anita Roddick and Blossom Kochhar in an earlier era.

A lot of our success in marketing at Infosys came because of the openness of the founders to listen to people below 30, hire a culturally diverse sales team and place bets on activities that were not a cultural fit for them – golf, award dinners at the Waldorf Astoria, partner programs at Las Vegas.  Infosys made conscious efforts to develop diversity at work.

One of the marketing greats of our era – Steve Jobs – said it best “Think Different”. The video is a 7 minute crash course in marketing. And a great pitch for diversity!

Inclusivity is the other side of the coin

For example, as Belson Coutinho explains in this podcast with me, Akasa Air is building its customer experience on a platform of inclusivity. That sounds amazing after the bad experience my teen had travelling alone with Indigo. And it isn’t a small market – changes we make for physical mobility help the elderly. Handling dietary preferences can help those with medical conditions like diabetes. By being more inclusive an organization makes its products appeal to a larger audience.

By making computers easier to use, Steve Jobs (yes, yes, I’m a fan) allowed Apple to grow beyond the geeks.

So what’s with the headline

This is a family publication so I couldn’t use the actual phrase. But why would a sweet lady dog be associated with all these vile attributes? We have a dog-who-is-female and she seems as nice – or not-nice- as dogs of the other gender. Whether it is this word or catty or shrew they all seem to stereotype female assertiveness. I have exited whatsapp groups that use these kind of phrases as also those that stereotype wives or certain religions. I get that these are historical brain shortcuts, but for our better future, we need to take the scenic route when it comes to assessing people.


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