How organisations can improve diversity at the top

To drive real transformation, HR and business leaders must commit to changing course, says Yetunde Hofmann

Credit: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

It is a well-known argument that businesses need a diverse set of voices around the top table to make better decisions for the people and the communities they serve. But in recent years, despite the many commitments to building inclusion and creating opportunities within corporate environments, we are yet to see any real improvements in greater diversity within senior positions, particularly in the C-suite and its direct reporting lines. 

To drive real, positive change and improve diversity at the top requires a serious commitment from HR and business leaders to change course, so here are a few ideas to put into practice:

Change starts from within 

Change can often be met with resistance, with decisions seen by your peers as ‘too much’ or ‘too fast’. But we cannot afford to go slowly anymore. Rather, we must acknowledge what we are willing to fight for and give up to accelerate inclusion within our workplaces. Establishing this can start with a root-and-branch review of all your people processes to establish what can be changed and what truly works for the people you are meant to serve as HR leaders. Real change requires sacrifice. 

Once you have a goal to work towards you’re much more likely to achieve it, and your progress when communicated will bring others with you on the journey. It is therefore very important that employers set challenging, yet achievable, targets for advancing diversity within their organisations and celebrate those who meet and exceed these targets, while also working closely with those who fall short to help them improve. Involving Black women and indeed others from underrepresented groups in these discussions can also bring to light new areas to address and act upon.   

If your organisation has a head of inclusion or chief diversity officer, they should report directly into the CEO. The gravity of these positions demands the same level of influence and respect as any other senior position, especially given their responsibilities with employees and the mandate to work collaboratively across the board. If they do not report directly to the CEO, then they must report into someone who does – and a person who genuinely believes in the value of inclusion, is committed to change and is willing to stand up and be counted. 

Learn from each other

Genuine collaboration creates genuine progress, so ensure that you are including all the necessary stakeholders in your conversations and changes. Be sure to extend discussions around advancing diversity and inclusion to the wider organisations and include any contractors or external suppliers you work with, especially head hunters and recruitment agencies. Understanding how they attract and recruit talent in their own organisations can highlight areas of alignment and improvement for both parties. Partners who learn and who role model are partners who will contribute to the advancement of your own agenda.

Employee resource groups are a great asset for your organisation, so it’s crucial that you equip them with the appropriate resources for success. Representation is a key part of this, so ensure they have the opportunities to speak to the right people at the right time, as their experiences and opinions can shape how you operate and build your workplace. If your employee resource groups have senior-level sponsors, make sure those sponsors have clarity on the expectations of their role and are willing and able to meet them. 

Working with leaders from outside your company can also support greater learning. Role swaps and shadowing experiences can enhance learning and introduce new methods and ways of thinking into your organisation. 

Talking money

According to ONS figures highlighted by the Huffington Post, the average pay disparity between the highest-earning male employees and their female equivalents in 2022 is 15.5 per cent, with a 10.6 per cent difference in pay between male and female managers, directors and senior officials. The reality is worse still for Black women, who evidence shows are the least likely to be amongst the UK’s top earners. 

Increasingly, remuneration and nomination committees are paying greater attention to the advancement of Black women, with the Financial Reporting Council as well as investment houses increasingly voicing that it is good and required practice to focus on ethnicity pay gaps. Addressing these issues directly with the support of your board can drive real improvements for diversity and inclusion across your organisation. Likewise, during the recruitment process for senior staff members, the topic of pay should be handled differently. It should not be something to save on, so avoid asking what their current package is. Instead, be willing to pay the going rate for the role – and also for the value of their future potential. 

Provide the frameworks for progression

Appointments from outside an organisation is an opportunity to introduce new ideas and experiences at the top. But for Black women, a lack of diverse representation in senior positions often means they are the only Black woman around the top table. It can be lonely at the top, and doubly so when you consider the implications of intersectionality. So, involve new senior appointees in the design of onboarding and induction, ensuring they are set up to win from the start. 

Development programmes are also central to developing a diverse talent pipeline within your organisation. Sponsorship is an excellent way to support the progression of younger employees, especially Black women who are often in a position where they are over-mentored and under-sponsored, meaning they cannot leverage their experience and knowledge because of a lack of internal support. The benefit of sponsorship is the opportunities for advancement associated with the programme, as it provides participants with an advocate who champions their skills and experiences even when they aren’t in the room. It can be incredibly beneficial for accessing career-accelerating opportunities and building relationships with senior decision makers, as well as enabling diversity at the top to improve through the career progression of talented younger staff. A good sponsorship programme should track the progress of the sponsored individual, as well as holding the sponsors accountable for their involvement, to ensure that the experience is beneficial for both participants.

These are actions that can not only be taken to advance diversity at the top now, but, if followed with genuine intent and commitment to positive change, also to ensure the success of the next generation of leaders. 

Yetunde Hofmann is founder of Solaris and author of Beyond Engagement