As a middle aged, white, straight male, I have often been told that my involvement in diversity and inclusion (D&I) is somewhat unusual. Ironically, perceiving inclusion efforts as something that you can only take part in if you have experienced adversity yourself is exactly the kind of exclusive conduct that deters others from getting involved with said initiatives.

According to the Parker Review Committee, diversity and inclusion is making huge strides at present, with 81 companies of the FTSE 100 having ethnic representation on their boards in March 2021, compared with just 52 in January 2020. However, we are all aware that there is a lot more that can be done, so where do we start?

An analogy

From my perspective, transforming the language we use to talk about diversity and inclusion is the first and most crucial step in developing a more inclusive society.

For years I have coached rugby and throughout my experience, I have learned one simple truth: until children reach the age of 10, girls are far better rugby players than boys. My instincts are backed up by statistics, which show time and time again that girls develop certain skills at a much faster rate than boys. For example, young girls develop spatial and verbal abilities at a faster rate than young boys, making them better equipped to play rugby both on an individual level and as a team.

As such, I recently entered an all-girls team into a school rugby tournament. In recent years, school rules have changed to state that each team must include at least two girls on the basis of inclusivity. Although my team was in line with these rules, I received a call soon after from the event organiser asking what point I was trying to make.

Masking the problem

Despite the statistics, the assumption being made was that girls are at a deficit and therefore, require a quota to ensure inclusion. Although this example is about school rugby, this deficit-quota response is the same approach we apply to diversity and inclusion within businesses and even society at large. Organisations are increasingly addressing D&I by hiring a Head of Diversity and Inclusion or Chief Diversity Officer to tackle any issues present in the company. According to data from LinkedIn, the number of people globally with this title more than doubled (107 per cent increase) over the last 5 years. In many ways, this may seem like progress, however it takes much more than one individual to cultivate a diverse and inclusive business, and so hiring in this way only mirrors our approach of deficit resolution by quotas.

The problem with quotas

Applying this strategy to my analogy, with the event organiser becoming the Chief Diversity Officer, there would only be two options for ensuring inclusion: increase the quota for girls or state ‘select your best team’.

The issue with trying to tackle D&I with quota systems is that it invokes a negative thought process. Rather than ‘diversity makes us better,’ the thought becomes, ‘we need more women for diversity,’ which only serves to invalidate the possibility that including more women would enhance the team – a crucially important argument for making substantive progress on diversity and inclusion. Simply following rules and enforcing quotas risks a situation akin to just hitting sales targets, and this won’t cut it. It’s vital that we change our tact from ‘we need to improve diversity’ to ‘diversity will make us better’ as this is the enlightening realisation that we must all face to see widespread change.

However, if the tournament organiser opted for the ‘select your best team’ approach, this too would struggle to drive real change due to years of internalised unconscious bias present in all of us. Naturally, most of us would picture a rugby field full of boys, rather than girls, purely because of our predetermined judgements of what sports we attribute to each

gender. Unconscious biases are a result of the stereotypical views we have learned throughout our lives and occur predominantly without our knowledge. Therefore, to see real change, we require a much more purposeful and collaborative shift that will alter our cultural attitudes towards diversity.

Culture comes from within

As a rugby coach, I strive to follow the English Rugby Football Union’s values of teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline, and sportsmanship. When choosing a team, I look for players that demonstrate all these values consistently along with the relevant skills that will make them a good player such as speed and spatial awareness. At the start of our training sessions, we remember these values and over time, we have grown a culture of caring for one another.

What’s most interesting is that implementing this mantra at the start of each training session has allowed each child I have ever coached to embrace these values without prejudice. The culture we have developed together is inclusive of diversity whether that be race, gender, religion, or any other factor – so much so that the children themselves picked the all-girls team as the best team we had.

From this, it’s clear to me that in-house coaching is a more effective approach to achieving diversity and inclusion and reaping its associated benefits than management. I advise business leaders to identify the values you attribute to your business and live by them. Affirm those values each day and they will permeate throughout your organisation.

Final thoughts

We should aspire to build the best team. If we know that is achievable through diversity, then we must alter our approach to it. By speaking about diversity in a more positive way, whether that be in an organisation or any other aspect of society, we will overcome unconscious biases and establish a genuine and valuable culture of diversity.

Progress will take time, but there are reasons to be hopeful. I look not at the schools complaining when my all-girls team won every game at the tournament, but on the next generation who are breaking down biases, and helping to build a more inclusive society.