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Do you need a chief feminism officer?

16 Jul 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

A name can make or break a product, but do new diversity and inclusion roles like ‘head of belonging ’ offer organisations real value or just pay lip service to the concept?

In June 2018, a job advertisement got people talking. It boasted a generous £261,000 per annum wage and called for 10 years’ experience in senior positions. While that all sounded fairly standard, it wasn’t the job spec that caused tongues to wag, but the provocative title of ‘chief feminism officer’. Stating it was open to both “men and women”, the advert placed by tech company gro.team explained it wanted to disrupt the “boys’ club” within the industry, and perhaps create a model for other businesses to follow. 

And this hasn’t been the only highly specific, unusual-sounding D&I job title to spring up in recent years. In October of the same year, law firm Dentons appointed what it described at the time as the world’s first ‘global women’s advancement director’. Unlike the chief feminism officer title, which was widely criticised by the Twittersphere, this role encountered no backlash. And appointee Amanda Jones – whose background is in employment law – is still going strong.

Since her inauguration into this hyper-focused role, Jones has delivered training courses dispelling myths about women needing confidence training – a concept she considers “absolute rubbish” – developed a project providing both male and female partners as mentors to Dentons’ global network of female employees, and delivered external talks on subjects such as unconscious bias. “My role is about trying to increase the number of female partners and women in senior leadership positions within the firm globally,” Jones explains, regarding the job’s purpose and the value she adds.

So are such roles the future of D&I potentially? Is there merit – where the organisation is large enough and the D&I team well enough resourced – in splitting out various characteristics to each be given their own dedicated professional? Or is this, as was the criticism levelled at the chief feminism officer title, always destined to offer more value as a PR exercise than as a meaningful endeavour to champion a certain group?

Femi Otitoju, founder and managing director of Challenge Consultancy, points out that this ‘new fangled’ approach isn’t in fact entirely new or fangled. Compartmentalising characteristics has – rightly or wrongly – been going on for at least 40 years (at least in the public sector). “Disability officers, women’s officers and even Irish officers have been around for a very long time, but I think people are now noticing it more in the commercial field,” says Otitoju. “I was literally called a ‘lesbian and gay officer’ at a local authority in 1986, so it’s not as radical as people think.”

For Jones, appointing someone tasked specifically with ensuring female representation and inclusion at her firm was simply a pragmatic step to tackle a particular historic D&I pain point in the legal sector: “We were not making as much as we could out of our female talent. It made business sense, as well as being the right thing to do, to focus on how we could ensure Dentons is the best place for women in the legal profession.”

Jones is keen to caveat that “it’s not about advancing women at the expense of men”, and that a key part is recognising intersectionality and the very different challenges women face as a broad group. She says: “While my role is focused on women, at the same time it takes in a wider diversity and inclusion focus. And this role is about getting men to understand it is their responsibility to deal with this, because we need to address the leaky pipeline.” 

The well-meaning rationale behind such roles can certainly be appreciated, says one founder of a D&I consultancy People Management spoke to: “They draw attention to the fact an organisation has a particular challenge, and at least they are being open about it. More than that, they are willing to throw some resources at it and invest in a programme of work.” 

However, super-specific positions could “loosen the impact of D&I work,” they worry, predicting such roles will hopefully “die an early death because everything about D&I work at the moment is intersectional”, and so about acknowledging someone’s multiple identities.

Otitoju says the idea of assigning a D&I professional an organisation’s particular ‘problem area’ isn’t necessarily bad in itself, but warns that language will be crucial in shaping expectations around what the role intends, and is likely, to achieve. This is probably why the high-blown-sounding title of chief feminism officer came under such scrutiny, she says: “You’d assume the chief feminism officer was tackling violence against women... Looking at ways women can earn the same and get promoted is not the entire feminist agenda. The remit they’ve given that person is a vital and practical one, but ‘feminism’ was too big a word.” 

Karen Clark, director of Strategic Dimensions, agrees this instance demonstrates 
the danger of becoming so 
caught up in the (albeit probably well-meaning) statement being made by a job title that this takes precedence over careful thought about what the role will actually entail. “The cynic in me says if you’re going to hire a chief feminism officer, you might be better off getting a marketing officer to go to conferences and talk about all the great work within the organisation and put a PR spin on it,” she says. She adds that the potential for the role to make those not apparently covered by its remit feel excluded could “open some flood gates”. 

More fruitful to some people’s minds is the until recently equally unusual descriptor that’s nonetheless increasingly popping up – particularly in the US – of ‘belonging’. As former head of diversity, inclusion and belonging at The Telegraph (now global head of D&I at Adidas), Asif Sadiq (see page 38) is one practitioner to have held such a title (in fact he lobbied for this word’s inclusion at The Telegraph). He says its power is to move the profession away from the very kind of people-in-boxes approach that hyper-specific D&I roles are in danger of 
further embedding. Belonging instead highlights the importance of an intersectional approach, he says. “Within those boxes we start isolating the majority within an organisation who now think diversity has got nothing to do with them,” he explains. 

“But actually diversity is to do with each and every one of us; we are all different in some way shape or form. Belonging is a nice way of making sure everyone comes round to that D&I conversation.” 

Sadiq adds that belonging is the next step along from diversity (achieving a representative employee population) and inclusion (ensuring all staff have equal opportunity to succeed at an organisation), as it calls into question whether people actually feel part of the company. “If people don’t have that sense of belonging, they aren’t going to stay and progress within an organisation,” he says. 

“It’s more about cultural change rather than a specific programme, but it’s difficult because people may feel they don’t belong for various reasons. Sometimes [we’re] just not the right fit for the individual and that’s fine. We need to acknowledge that.”

Many hope, however, that such debates on what constitutes a genuinely helpful and meaningful D&I job description may be redundant in future – as the discipline achieves such great things that focus on certain characteristics or concepts is no longer needed. “By definition the roles should be about a transition,” says Chris Underwood, managing director of Adastrum Consulting. “The end point surely has to be that success is defined by that job no longer being needed. I haven’t heard too many people articulate that. Who puts their hand up and says ‘I no longer need this job’?”

Who indeed? Well, Dentons’ Jones, for one. “The ideal situation would be not having D&I specialists at all, because it should be embedded in everything we do,” she agrees. “If I can make myself redundant, then I have achieved my goal.” 

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Deputy Director of People, Culture & Transformation

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