‘Not just sporadic awareness days’ – why businesses should embrace EDI all the time

Luke-Matthew Iveson explains how organisations can put diversity at the centre of all they do

While many organisations take pride in celebrating their business achievements, there's a growing need to invest time and effort to deeply understand and genuinely honour the affinity celebrations that matter to their people. These moments are not just dates in a calendar; they represent the shared experiences, struggles and traditions of entire communities. Businesses must be accountable for embracing these celebrations as annual events and integral parts of their ongoing equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) journey – all year round.

Many affinity celebrations we observe today emerged from resistance against deep-seated societal challenges such as discrimination and prejudice. These dates are not mere historical markers – they are potent reminders of progress achieved and challenges that persist. However, in today's corporate landscape, there’s a growing concern that the essence of these celebrations is being lost. Have these important days become mere checkmarks on our corporate communications calendars? Are we celebrating them out of habit rather than accountability?

This issue points to a larger challenge in the corporate approach to EDI — the risk of superficiality. Token gestures such as changing logos for Pride Month or repetitive storytelling can dilute the true meaning of these celebrations. Authentic EDI requires more than performative displays; it demands meaningful action rooted in understanding and respect.

To transform this depth of engagement into a tangible reality, we advocate a focused approach encapsulated in three As: accountability, awareness and action. Each of these pillars plays a crucial role in turning well-meaning rhetoric into meaningful change.

Accountability: articulating the 'why'

The 'why' of affinity celebrations is about more than acknowledging a date; it's about comprehending its significance to both the business and its people. This phase demands introspection and honesty: why are these celebrations important? What relevance do they hold in the context of the organisation’s values and the diverse experiences of its employees? 

Companies must reflect on how these events align with their core values and the broader goals of their EDI initiatives. It's about embedding the essence of these celebrations into the business's culture, ensuring that it resonates with both leadership and the workforce. This need for deeper reflection is underscored by promising statistics: 75 per cent of HR and corporate leaders in Europe now have a dedicated budget for EDI and 90 per cent are implementing at least one initiative driven by data to foster continuous improvement. For example, Snap Inc has demonstrated accountability in its EDI strategy by instituting quarterly business reviews for leadership to track EDI objectives. This approach has shifted from sporadic EDI efforts to each department developing specific EDI goals. By increasing leadership's hands-on support and refining its diversity data dashboard for better tracking, Snap has shown a commitment to integrating EDI into its business operations, making it a shared responsibility across the company, with clear targets and accountability.

Awareness: unravelling the 'what'

The 'what' centres on raising awareness about the history, significance and current relevance of each affinity celebration. This isn't just about surface-level engagement, it's about delving deep to uncover what these days truly represent and how they can spur real change within the organisation. 

Awareness also involves challenging preconceptions and encouraging open dialogues that can lead to a deeper understanding and empathy. It’s about creating opportunities for learning and reflection, helping employees connect with the essence of these celebrations in a meaningful and transformative way.

However, challenges remain. A recent EDI focus group conducted by Forty1 revealed a gap in understanding among leaders: many still struggle to fully grasp EDI and organisational challenges and are uncertain about utilising the EDI data they collect. There was a noticeable sentiment that EDI initiatives were not being leveraged effectively, often treated as isolated programmes rather than integrated tools for enriching organisations and mitigating various business risks.

Netflix's dedication to awareness in EDI is exemplified by its in-depth study with the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which scrutinises its original content for diversity and representation. The study revealed that Netflix has made commendable strides in gender equality, with women taking the lead in more than half of the films and series.

It also highlighted a year-over-year increase in racial and ethnic diversity among leads. However, Latinx characters and creators, as well as the LGBTQ+ community and individuals with disabilities, are areas where Netflix can further improve representation.

By openly evaluating and sharing these findings, Netflix demonstrates a commitment to continuous learning and improvement, embodying the awareness pillar by using data to inform more inclusive storytelling practices.

Action: sparking the 'how'

The 'how' is where awareness and understanding are transformed into tangible, impactful actions. It's about taking the insights gained from the 'why' and 'what' and implementing them in ways that genuinely foster equity, diversity and inclusion within the organisation. This step is critical as it moves the organisation beyond rhetoric and into the realm of concrete, measurable progress.

Action can take many forms, from revising internal practices to ensuring fairness and inclusivity to supporting community initiatives that align with the values highlighted in these affinity celebrations. It's also about maintaining this momentum throughout the year, ensuring that EDI is not just a topic for specific dates but a continuous commitment.

The key is to create initiatives that are not only symbolic but also bring about real change in the organisational structure and culture. This might involve establishing mentorship programmes, enhancing employee resource groups, or embedding EDI objectives into business strategies.

IBM's Be Equal. Be Active initiative is a powerful illustration of action within its EDI framework, turning principles into practice by fostering allyship and advocacy. This initiative equips IBM employees and external audiences with the knowledge and tools to act as allies within the workplace, promoting a culture of active support across diverse groups.

It’s important to acknowledge that real, lasting change in EDI is a journey, not a destination. It requires slow, intentional work characterised by planned, sustained effort. Organisations must remain patient yet persistent, understanding that the road to true inclusivity and equity is a continuous process of growth and improvement. This journey demands more than surface-level acknowledgement; it requires a sustained commitment to accountability in understanding the 'why', awareness in exploring the 'what' and action in executing the 'how'. By embracing these three ‘As’, organisations can move beyond tokenistic gestures and embed true EDI values into every facet of their culture and operations.

Luke-Matthew Iveson is director of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Centre of Excellence at Forty1