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Why the pandemic is a turning point for D&I

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The ingenuity needed to thrive in 2020 means seeking out and welcoming many different perspectives – so now is not the time for complacency when it comes to diversity and inclusion, writes Emma De Vita

Back in June, the founder of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, coined the term ‘The Great Reset’, urging us to rebuild societies, work, education and the economy in a better way.

This means capitalising on the best minds, and casting the talent net more broadly, while recognising that cognitive diversity gives you creative solutions and finds the blindspots that groupthink never will.

But now is a dangerous time for progress on diversity and inclusion (D&I). Not only does fear – of the pandemic and economic uncertainty – lead us to hunker down and seek out the familiar, but home-working means that biases that might be challenged in the office go unchecked.

The benefits of greater diversity
Stephen Frost, CEO of Frost Included, believes that many project managers wrongly see D&I as a cost, rather than an opportunity. “If you just stick to what you know, you are not going to have higher productivity,” he says. “The evidence suggests that if you have more diversity on your team, you will make more money.”

But you need strong, inclusive leadership, he argues – someone who understands that a diversity of perspectives will de-risk situations, give new insights and uncover blindspots.

“Project management gives you the opportunity to truly flex your resourcing model around the skills that you need for every stage of the project,” says Roianne Nedd, global D&I lead at consultancy Oliver Wyman. “So you’re more able to bring in diversity of thought, different skills and different people.”

What’s really beneficial, she adds, is to get to know your team members individually and understand their strengths and how they will fit into a project. If you manage a programme, you can create a diverse pool of talent to share across projects.

Pandemic pros and cons
The pandemic has brought positives, like opening up our homes through video calls and forcing more one-to-one conversations that enable people to shine, Nedd believes. But it has also brought negatives.

“We’ve seen gender progress dial back during the pandemic because of the return to more traditional gender roles,” she says. “Some women are having to rethink their careers and even resign, because if having children at home becomes a long-term issue, it is just not a sustainable model.

“We also have to think about where we are with race equity. The death of George Floyd has created more momentum around how we think about that, and how we step back and make systemic change to confront the lack of visible ethnic diversity in many organisations. We are at a turning point.”

It’s about accountability, Nedd adds – enabling people to look at diversity as a business issue, not just a social issue.

In practical terms, explains Nedd, this means looking at your talent pipeline, rooting out bias in your recruitment, holding people accountable for their actions, doing analysis around decision-making and identifying when recruits are being left behind.

Different frames of reference
“The reason why cognitive diversity is so important is because we have big problems that we have to solve now,” says Dee Tamlin, head of client and legal project management at Pinsent Masons, and founding co-chair of its LGBT network.

“We want to bring people with different frames of reference into the problem-solving arena. It could be that the person who is the least experienced in project management might have the solution,” says Tamlin. “Every single person on the project team needs a voice, because it could be risk management that you are doing, and that small voice could be the voice that tells you that you are about to hit a massive risk.”

What about calling out bad behaviour? “Whatever minority group you might be in, allies are absolutely critical. Our female network group has men. Our LGBT network group has many straight people. As a gay woman, I’m not always going to be around or always call out something to do with LGBT things, but hopefully our allies will stand by us,” she says.

Anita Phagura, founder of Fierce Project Management and a committee member for APM’s Women in Project Management SIG, has been in a minority on project teams either by gender or ethnicity and has experienced subtle and not-so-subtle encounters with sexism and racism. She was also concerned that the higher she climbed in the project hierarchy, the fewer women she could see.

Phagura found her desire to continue to progress her project management career and have the flexibility to look after her young son very difficult, and things have only got worse during lockdown. The community of female project managers with whom she connects have reported an even more pressurised expectation to be ever-present for virtual meetings.

The mission of Fierce Project Management is “to embed inclusivity in projects so that women and under-represented groups can get their voices heard, be taken seriously and access opportunities. It’s not about changing the women – it’s the workplaces that need to be fixed. We need to rebuild the culture,” she says.

Give everyone an equal voice
Jenny McLaughlin is a project manager at Heathrow and lead for its disability network. For project managers working for organisations that are lagging behind in attitude but want to take action, she advises, “It’s about asking, ‘How can we incorporate D&I into project design principles?’”

The best place to start, she says, is to understand the diversity you already have on your team, to treat people with respect and kindness and to make the team a psychologically safe place to be. “Unless everyone’s voice has equal value, then you won’t be able to improve the project.”

James Lea, a consulting project and programme manager and Fellow of APM, has a personal involvement with D&I. “I have always made it clear that I have a hearing loss, and have educated and informed those around me as to how we can adapt to what this means together,” he says.

Is now the right time for a greater diversity push? “Absolutely. The pandemic has driven change further and faster than any coordinated business transformation programme. We must seize this initiative,” says Lea. “Technology is rising to the challenge, but we’ve yet to understand what the new ways of working will look like. The more we can push, the stronger we’ll be when things settle down again.”


This article first appeared in Autumn 2020 of Project journal, a free publication for APM Members. Download the digital issue now (🔒).


Image: Blue Planet Studio / Shutterstock


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