Interview: Organizations must resemble society, say EDI and DE&I specialists Dr Marie Connolly and Emmanuel Ofosu-Appiah

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I am a great believer in lifelong learning and in February I was privileged to be educated on diversity, equality, equity and inclusion by two specialists in these areas, writes Orla Clancy

Dr Marie Connolly, head of equality, diversity and inclusion at the University of Limerick (UL) in Ireland, and Emmanuel Ofosu-Appiah, UK PR manager at Mercer, are authentic advocates of EDI and DE&I and are invested in making them front and center of organizations.

Dr Connolly spent much of her 30-year career as a HR change manager focusing on gender equality. She worked in the semi-state sector, both the commercial and non-commercial, before joining UL to drive gender relations aspects, interventions and initiatives. “Once you start looking at gender, then you realize that there’s an intersectionality between gender and how various forms of inequalities are interconnected for minority women and other under-represented groups including issues of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism” she said. “One of the biggest change initiatives that we drove as a sector has been the prestigious Athena SWAN framework, a charter that recognizes and celebrates gender equality in higher education and research institutions. Originally, the focus of Athena SWAN was on addressing the imbalance of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) as we know women  are under-represented in these areas. Now, it’s about gender equality across all disciplines. We are looking at where there is under-representation of males in particular in disciplines such as nursing, midwifery, psychology and education. It’s much better to address things from a gender equality and EDI focus than just focusing on one gender over another. From that perspective UL has been a leader in the field on gender equality.”

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement has given a particular focus to race. Dr Connolly said that it’s only now becoming an issue in Ireland. “In UL we have over 100 nationalities, both from a student perspective and a staff perspective. We have diversity, but is it obvious? It’s not. If you look at all our universities, people at the top tables are predominantly white. We don’t have that diversity across the board.”

BLM also addressed the issue of white privilege. “People misunderstand what white privilege means. It doesn’t mean that we come from privileged backgrounds as white people,” she said. “It means that we have the privilege never to be discriminated against because of our name, because of where we come from, because of all the microaggressions that black people and people of different ethnic backgrounds suffer. We don’t suffer any of that and we have very little exposure to it. We take it for granted.

What’s happened in the world has made us focus and realize we need to educate our people. We’re doing a lot in UL now around race equality, race and multiculturalism and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) is gathering data now on ethnicity.”

Meanwhile in industry, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) founded the Race and Ethnicity Equity Board (REEB) last year to create both immediate and long-term proportional racial equity within the PR and communications industry. REEB is chaired by strategic communications consultant Barbara Phillips and Ofosu-Appiah recently joined as a board member to help create long-term change in the industry. “Its purpose is to ensure the PRCA – as well as the broader PR industry – adopts a best practice approach to ethnic and racial inclusion,” he said. 

When asked what leaders can do when it comes to DE&I within organizations, Ofosu-Appiah replied that they have an obligation to ensure transparency and accountability in all decision making, that organizations must resemble the society in which they operate and serve, and that retention goes beyond hiring a diverse workforce, it is about what leaders are doing to effect real opportunities for professionals and equity for ethnically diverse employees. Dr Connolly feels that the recruitment process plays a huge role in bringing about change. “The most successful businesses in the world have diversity on their teams,” she said. “They’re more successful because they’re listening and they’re getting opinions from the customer base that’s diverse. Whereas if you continue to do as you’ve always done nothing will change. I think recruitment and selection has a massive role to play in changing our organizations,” she said.

“I firmly believe you can’t be what you can’t see. If young people don’t see any black person leading an organization, they’ll think it’s never going to happen for them. We are constantly trying to put in female role models for young women coming through so that they can see that a woman can be a surgeon, a woman can be a pilot. We have to broaden this now to yes, if you’re a black Irish person, of course, you can lead an organization. But where are the role models?,” she asked.

“We need to stop tokenism – it’s very insulting to black people who aren’t at the decision-making tables. We only have to look at our top management teams,” she said. “I think industry has done this better, they certainly have that diverse community at decision-making level. We had focused before on the 30 per cent club, but we need to move beyond that and look at whether we have a diverse culture leading our organizations. Until we have that we cannot really say we are inclusive.”

The role of communications, both internal and external, is huge in addressing EDI and DE&I. How we communicate internally, what we celebrate, and what we bring to the fore need to be deliberate and carefully considered.

“Communications plays a significant role in DE&I as it allows businesses and companies to promote their initiatives and also give the public insight on the topic,” explained Ofosu-Appiah. “It helps business leaders to communicate with the outside world about what they are doing to address real world issues such as racial inequality, gender bias and injustice. 

“This also has a direct effect on the internal communications aspect as most employees are now concerned with how their employers are addressing this topic. We need to continue discussing this topic so it becomes second nature and not an afterthought,” he said.

When it comes to external communications in organizations, Dr Connolly described an equality impact assessment they have in UL that encompasses the views of the university’s diverse community. “When there’s a new policy we consider whether it takes on board all of the different angles of EDI. It makes sure that EDI is on every single agenda. We need to go beyond meeting legislative requirements. We need to do more than ticking a box.”

What else can we do? What is emerging as best practice in terms of ensuring greater workplace DE&I? Ofosu-Appiah opined that companies can report on their ethnicity pay gap and take appropriate action to address the cultural issues that linger in the organization from the top down. “No longer is it enough to just say ‘everyone is welcome here’. Much has to change and the norms need to be challenged.”

He points to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures from 2019 that reveal the pay gap is at its highest in London at 23.8 per cent and lowest in Wales at 1.4 per cent. “Reporting on the ethnicity pay gap is currently not legislated, like the gender pay gap is. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, only 36 per cent of employers collect ethnicity data. At the time of REEB’s ethnicity pay gap guide publication, only 82 UK based companies have publicly reported their ethnicity pay gap. None are from the PR sector! It will get uncomfortable and there will be resistance, but organizations need to adapt and embed true inclusion from the top down.”

At UL, Dr Connolly spoke about the unconscious bias training that’s been implemented as a compulsory initiative for all recruitment panels. “It’s not an answer, it’s one step. We have to address our own biases. It’s another action that organizations can take. We need to be braver and challenge and listen and have the voices of those that come from those communities around the table as well and to listen to them.”

Late last year, the PRCA published its 2020 census. It shows that the PR industry is predominantly female with 68 per cent identifying as female and 31 percent as male. Almost nine out of 10 (88 per cent) managing directors identify as White British, and 88 per cent of agency leaders and 80 per cent of in-house directors identify as white. As an industry, how can we work towards greater diversity among our leaders, right now and for future generations? 

“We need to be confident to give BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) professionals the responsibility to lead organizations and teams. There is no way our industry will change if those leading these teams all look the same. We need to be comfortable with the fact that there are talented leaders from ethnic backgrounds who can do the job just as well as anyone else,” answered Ofosu-Appiah.

Talking about the important distinction between equality and equity, Dr Connolly explained that equality is “not being discriminated against because of your gender, your age, or ethnic background and everyone being treated the same. Equal treatment takes no account of personal circumstances e.g. no reasonable accommodation for a disability.  We need equity to have real equality. For equity to exist, we need to put supports in place so that everyone can be treated the same and so that everyone is on an equal footing.” 

Ofosu-Appiah agreed that “diversity, equity and inclusion is about recognizing differences, understanding unique perspectives and encouraging equality in business and society as a whole.”

He said it’s about fostering a more diverse, equitable and inclusive organizational culture. “I believe that businesses can thrive and achieve greater results when they embrace diversity. This gives a greater option of solutions to complex client issues. In fact, the business case for a diverse and equitable organization is stronger than ever. McKinsey’s report on diversity last year emphatically proved that the likelihood of outperformance is much higher for more ethnically diverse executive teams.

“By developing a wider and more diverse talent pipeline, graduates and young people entering the business world can see people who look like them. It is up to organizations to make a conscious effort to hire and actively encourage candidates from diverse backgrounds,” he continued.

Dr Connolly talked about the importance of measurement in terms of capturing change. “Leaders need to recognize if they want to say they are an EDI organization, they need to broaden what they’re going to do and set clear targets on putting in place change. You can say you’re going to change, but if you don’t have a framework for capturing those changes, what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.

What is the biggest challenge to achieving EDI in organizations now? “At UL, our challenge is to change the face of the university to reflect the community that we are serving. We like to be, and are in many ways, a university of firsts – the first to have Athena SWAN, the first university of sanctuary (scholarships are offered to refugees and asylum seekers), the first female president. We are very much a community-based university that attracts international students. Our role is to protect them and provide a place where they are valued,” said Dr Connolly.

A common sentiment from both Dr Connolly and Ofosu-Appiah is that organizations need to reflect the society they serve and operate in. Leaders can enrich their organizations by integrating diversity, equality, equity and inclusion. It’s time to ask yourself ‘Does my decision-making table look like me or is it representative of all stakeholders?’