• The case for diversity in teams is clear, but it's difficult to achieve in practice.
  • The nomination results for the Forum for Young Global Leaders show that many of the suggested candidates are male and Western.
  • Strategies to improve diversity include structured interviews, specific criteria and updated policies to support perception change.

The business case for diversity is ever more pressing. For over a decade, study after study has propagated the same conclusion: A diverse team – representing diverse nationalities, genders, abilities, ideologies, religions and more – makes organizations more innovative, profitable, appealing to workers and resilient to economic shocks. With uncertainty around an economic slowdown looming, if ever we needed innovation and resilience, it is now.

But diversifying our organizations – particularly at the management and leadership levels – has proven difficult. Despite women now comprising well over half of the university-educated population in the US, they make up only 6% of the CEOs. There are only four African American CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, less than 1%.

Image: World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2020

Numerous articles advising companies how to attract, hire and retain diverse talent illustrate why diversity is easy to integrate into strategies in theory, but challenging to realize in practice: Basic workforce data does not formally capture many facets of diversity, and it is impossible to assess improvement when the baseline is unclear.

Perceptions that widespread conversation about this topic is leading to action are overly optimistic and risk stemming progress. Blind spots around our own individual biases impact hiring, negotiation and salary decision. For example, above-average looks can increase someone’s salary by 3% to 4%, just as an extra inch of height has been linked to an additional $789 in annual salary.

What I’ve learned promoting leadership diversity

In my work leading a foundation whose mission involves promoting leadership diversity, I see the challenges of expanding traditional notions of what “leadership” is first-hand. Every year, the Forum of Young Global Leaders receives close to 1,500 nominations of accomplished, publicly recognized, innovative individuals under the age of 40 from around the world for a competitive selection process to identify about 100 “Young Global Leaders.”

We see this as an opportunity to draw attention to the incredible work of promising leaders across regions and celebrate the vision, tenacity and courage that unites this group. We also bring these individuals together regularly and witness how collaboration through diversity unleashes unprecedented energy and resourcefulness around solving unresolved global problems.

Our goal is to create a list of honorees that represents the spectrum of leadership diversity in the world; however, the nominations we receive from the public reflect prevailing assumptions about who and what comprises a leader. In 2016, nearly 65% of the nominations we received from the general public were from North America and Western Europe, and nearly 70% were male. Our nomination link is open to the world at large – anyone can nominate a worthy candidate. So why were we receiving so few female and non-Western nominees?

These figures follow broader trends on who is typically profiled and distinguished as leaders. In 2019, just 20% of profiles on Wikipedia featured women. Despite efforts to increase diversity, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences still receives a preponderance of Western-based, male nominations for the Nobel Prize.

Strategies to increase diversity in teams

Like other organizations aiming to achieve diversity, we have put concrete practices in place to support more diversity in our membership. We have also looked to experts in our community to as inspiration for our own work.

Evolving research on overcoming unconscious biases helped to inform our first steps to proactively evaluate gaps in our nomination pool. Our team identifies the absence of specific intersectional characteristics – for example, women from South Asia in extractive industries – and seeks to complement public nominations with our own research to fill these gaps. We examine nominations by region, country, sector, gender, ability and ethnicity to actively collaborate with nominators, colleagues and other organizations to find individuals whose leadership deserves recognition but who don’t fit the typical mould.

We have also worked closely with our Selection Committee and Advisory Group to redesign our selection process to include more "gateways” that help us re-consider our own biases. For example, Young Global Leader Tinna Nielsen advises organizations on designing “inclusion nudges," practices and policies that support behaviour and perception change, into their work to overcome blind spots, and we have examined our process to integrate this approach.

An important piece of this effort has been to specify the criteria we use to evaluate candidates. For instance, we evaluate candidates based on behaviours aligned to our community’s guiding principles. We also seek to understand their quantifiable impact – in undisputable numbers. This type of “inclusion nudge” aims to help us assess each nomination as objectively as possible.

Lastly, we have integrated structured interviews into the selection process to create more opportunities for interaction and information-gathering on candidates. These include uniform interview guides with questions that gather the same information across candidates, a suggested format and opening question to guide the conversation, and introduction that creates a similar experience. As our organization aims to highlight and invest in leaders whom we believe can lead the world to a more sustainable and inclusive future, we want to understand a candidate’s motivations beyond whatever is publicly available on the internet, and avoid getting distracted by subjective perceptions.

These types of structured exchanges are recommended by companies seeking to avoid confirmation bias in their hiring processes. This method allows us to recruit top leaders with an openness to learn, adapt and co-create innovative approaches to emerging challenges into our community.

Our efforts to translate strategy into tangible change are a work in progress. In 2019, the regional and gender diversity in our candidate pool increased significantly, but we have further to go. As we select this year’s Young Global Leaders, we are conscious of the bridges they will build for new categories of leaders to emerge, and the power they offer in innovating new solutions to challenges we face globally. The dynamism and ingenuity born from spurring collaboration across this group demonstrate the value of diverse teams.

At a time when the world grapples with unknowns, this is a clear call for countries, companies and communities to leverage diversity to build resilience.

Learn more about the Forum for Young Global Leaders and meet the new class on 11 March 2019 here.