Creating a safe space: Senior leaders can do more to combat discrimination

Senior leaders need to do more to challenge organisational cultures that enable discrimination, report finds.

Many women from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups have experienced discrimination in their current workplace, a new study found. The report by global not-for-profit Catalyst unearths the complexities of workplace hostility and points out senior leaders have more work to do to instil inclusive values into their organisations.

When gender initiatives don't seek out the experiences of women from marginalised racial and ethnic groups, chances are they get left behind and ultimately do not benefit, the report said. Similarly, when diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives fail to incorporate women's voices, it is likely that they will not benefit.

The data was collected in May and June 2022. The study surveyed 2,734 women from marginalised racial and ethnic groups in Australia, Canada, South Africa, the UK, and the US. In the report, they centre the voices of women from marginalised racial and ethnic groups because their experiences are often unnoticed or ignored in DEI interventions.

Employees continue to face challenges due to an organisation's culture, in which colleagues are not speaking up against acts of racism and sexism, and it results in discrimination going unaddressed. This kind of work environment leads to increased turnover rates and decreased employee job satisfaction and wellbeing, the report said.

Change starts at the top, and some respondents say that senior leaders are falling short. Five in ten women surveyed report that senior leaders do not engage in allyship (actively supporting by calling out barriers and biases that inhibit progress), and four in ten report that they do not engage in inclusive practices, which the report refers to as curiosity (proactively seeking out different points of view to learn about others' experiences), the report said.

"Senior leaders must cultivate open, diverse cultures where incidences of racism are swiftly dealt with and fairness and accountability are at the heart of an organisation's processes and procedures," Lorraine Hariton, Catalyst's president and CEO, said in a news release.

Key data points

In the UK alone, 59% of 604 survey respondents expressed that they have experienced racism in their current workplace. The wider survey showed that 51% of women from marginalised racial and ethnic groups experience racism at work.

Across the board, the report found that racism and mistreatment can also be amplified by underlying biases around other protected characteristics. Sixty-seven per cent of transgender women, and 63% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and asexual women, are more likely to experience racism at work than cisgender heterosexual women (49%), the report said.

The report also found that women with darker skin tones are more likely than women with lighter skin tones to experience racism at work.

Create an inclusive environment

The report recommends four ways organisations can drive DEI initiatives:

Be an antiracist leader. When leaders fail to actively ground their leadership practices in antiracism, they help perpetuate racial hierarchies and toxic organisational climates. Silence on these issues contributes to the status quo and legitimates the unequal distribution of resources in workplaces.

Measure experiences of racism. Create systems to gather feedback to measure if there is a gap between what leaders say about wanting to create inclusive workplaces and what women, including those from marginalised racial and ethnic groups, actually experience at work.

Change the culture. Create an organisational culture where women from marginalised racial and ethnic groups can also thrive like their colleagues. When senior leaders demonstrate allyship and curiosity, they are strengthening their organisational culture.

Hold staff accountable. Create accountability programmes that identify and track employee behaviours that are out of step with an organisation's espoused values so companies can take swift action when needed.

Catalyst is supported by leading companies around the world to help build workplaces that work for women. 

Resources on implementing DEI initiatives in the workplace are available from AICPA & CIMA, together as the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

AICPA & CIMA's diversity and sponsorship toolkits, along with a business case focusing on top reasons to drive DEI initiatives, can help organisations to develop a diverse culture that can help them stay competitive and boost performance. Accessing some of the content requires membership.

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