Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

4 ways companies can make real progress on diversity, equity and inclusion

Companies that prioritize DEI tend to outperform their industry peers.

Companies that prioritize DEI tend to outperform their industry peers. Image: Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Elisabeth Pipic
Specialist, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice, World Economic Forum Geneva
Silja Baller
Head of Mission, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, World Economic Forum
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Fairer Economies

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  • Research shows that diverse companies tend to be more innovative and adaptable than their peers.
  • Despite some progress, gaps in economic opportunities and outcomes for underrepresented groups remain.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer’s (CDIO) Community, a group of 133 C-suite executives, shares some ideas on how companies can make real progress when it come to diversity and inclusion.

Systematic gaps in economic opportunities and outcomes for underrepresented groups remain large, and the ongoing polycrisis has shown that any progress made is easily reversible. The continued weak global economy and geopolitical volatility is hitting underrepresented groups the hardest.

Addressing this challenge will be critical to creating fairer economies and reviving long-term growth. Diverse and inclusive organizations have the power to accelerate progress. Research has shown that more diverse leadership teams make higher quality, more fact-based decisions, and more diverse teams tend to be more innovative, developing products and solutions that reach a wider range of people. In addition, organizations with a more diverse workforce are more adaptable to change and thus more likely to lead transformations.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

Impact of diversity on team performance. DEI

What are concrete ways to boost corporate action when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and therefore to speed up progress on creating more inclusive economies? The World Economic Forum’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer’s (CDIO) Community, a group of 133 C-suite executives, has been convening regularly through Dialogue Series in 2023 to answer that question. Based on those discussions, here are four frontiers for expanding DEI impact in the corporate sector.

1. Embrace the geography of diversity

DEI approaches are founded on global principles recognizing the intrinsic value of human diversity and the belief that every individual, regardless of their background, deserves equal opportunities, respect and fair treatment. While these principles transcend borders, cultures, and socio-economic contexts, tailoring DEI strategies to the needs of local communities or markets is a key enabler for lasting impact.

As Nilufer Demirkol, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Nestlé, suggested: “We need to be glocal – having the global vision while adapting to local realities to stay relevant.” Acknowledging the differences in local contexts requires setting DEI targets that reflect the maturity levels of specific regions and industries. Therefore, DEI strategies need to be adaptable, while still producing results that meet regional demands and induce accountability towards driving sustained change.

One impactful mechanism discussed was deploying local “ambassadors” for driving DEI outcomes. These ambassadors are tasked with embedding the DEI strategy into daily operations and ensuring efforts remain relevant across cultures and business functions. Preeti D’Mello, Vice-President and Global Head of DEI at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), emphasised how DEI strategy development is expanding and becoming more systems-focused and has “shifted towards enablement and collaborative engagement for maximum impact.”

2. Implementing a whole of business approach

In some cases, DEI efforts are predominantly centred around Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers alone, which may limit the reach, accountability and impact of such efforts in fostering diversity and equity within organizations. A critical learning emerging from the Dialogue Series was that successful DEI strategies require mobilizing the entire business for implementation.

Linking policy development, employee engagement, innovation, technology, learning, communications and multi-stakeholder collaboration to DEI objectives, embeds them as an integral part of the core business mandate. At TCS, DEI matters “are seamlessly integrated with culture building, community mobilization becomes integrated with employee policies, and recruitment goals are integrated with aspirations of business teams.” As a result, DEI is a strategic imperative that resonates across portfolios and leadership levels.

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Smita Pillai, Regeneron’s CDIO, noted that “there is a growing awareness among teams and thought leaders that it is not just enough for an organization to create a CDIO position, but it’s also vital to examine how well-resourced a CDIO is, how integrated they are across an organization’s operations, and how much autonomy and influence they have to achieve their goals. DEI is a component in every aspect of the business.”

The role of the CDIO is evolving into a strategic influencer and mediator between business functions, which Melonie Parker, CDIO of Google, described as “influencing every part of a company. This means rather than just focusing on a calendar of heritage month activities, we also prioritize fostering empathy, building allyship, and helping our organizations recognize the business imperative of DEI efforts. The number of people and groups DEI teams serve keeps expanding — which means our umbrella needs to get bigger, too.”

3. Leveraging technology for digital inclusion

While the rapid advancement of technological tools, such as AI-driven analytics, virtual reality and on-demand learning platforms provide an immense opportunity for broadening the scope of DEI efforts, digital divides and job displacement due to technological disruptions could exacerbate social inequity. Recent research is raising concerns around AI perpetuating harmful biases and misinformation, widening disparities in education and economic prospects for marginalized communities. Floss Aggrey, CDIO of Randstad, shared her belief that there is a need for businesses to respond to this context proactively and deploy trainings on regulations as well as actively mitigating the biases that AI can perpetuate.

A key consensus in the Dialogue Series was that there is an opportunity to utilize new technological tools to complement DEI progress and redefine monitoring or reporting techniques. Consequently, disruptive technologies can act as DEI enablers and foster increased transparency and consistency if applied in businesses collectively. As Demirkol emphasised, it will be important to ensure that technological developments drive digital and social inclusion, foster learning and development, and build psychological safety and a stronger sense of belonging and trust in the entire business value chain. Innovative products, services and technologies must reflect the diverse needs and preferences of communities instead of deepening existing biases.

4. Building external ecosystems for DEI impact

In the early development of DEI programmes, the main focus was improving internal workforce demographics. The CDIO Dialogue Series explored the interconnectedness between organizations and the communities they serve, which reinforced the broader societal impact of effective DEI policies. Linking DEI programmes to corresponding global risks and macro-economic trends fosters partnerships with critical entities that amplify the scope of the DEI agenda: “Industry associations, community organizations, and educational institutions promote a culture of inclusivity and belonging within the organization and community wherever the company operates”, said Demirkol. As a result, a robust DEI agenda acts as an integral part of solutions for issues at a global scale, such as climate change, or migration.

“As DEI professionals, we understand that the challenges we’re facing crop up in different ways, many of which we might not even recognize. That’s why it’s important for us to get close to all communities, to listen deeply and really understand their needs and to find ways to involve them in the design of solutions,” said Melonie Parker.

To mobilize stakeholders outside of the DEI function, Smita Pillai emphasizes “elevating the global and growing body of research that consistently shows how DEI is linked to better decision-making, problem-solving, team performance, organizational innovation, and even reduced cost of turnover.”

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Equity, Diversity and InclusionEconomic Growth
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