The past few years have been a time of unprecedented challenge and change, both in society and in the workplace. The pandemic has surfaced many societal inequities in the United States, including the disproportionate health and economic impact on communities of color, disparities in access to care and support, and the impact of caregiving on women. The murder of George Floyd ignited a global social justice movement and put the spotlight on the racial inequities so deeply embedded in the systems that surround us.
In 2022, systemic racism continues to show up in a rising tide of voter suppression bills that disproportionately affect voters of color, legislation attacking the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, and efforts to abolish critical race theory and ban books that discuss race, sexuality, and gender in our schools. These are just a few of the stark reminders of how much work is still ahead of us.
There is much at stake when it comes to protecting our basic human rights and progressing toward a more equitable and inclusive future. Today’s workplace is rife with the results of systemic failures that haven’t been openly addressed.
The reality is that biases and inequities have permeated just about every aspect of the world of work, from decades (if not centuries) of pattern build-up. Pay inequities, low wages, and lack of benefits continue to characterize many jobs in the nation’s labor force, disproportionately impacting women and other marginalized groups. Representation is still sorely lacking in boardrooms and at senior levels across every industry sector. The wealth gap in the United States is the greatest it has ever been.
These are hard truths, and they have a long-term impact on generations, communities, society, and the nation’s economy overall.
The growing transparency about these realities has been a wake-up call for many organizations and leaders. We’re at a point in history in which people are finding their voices and using them to apply pressure on organizations that are lagging behind demographic changes and social issues. The demand for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) both in the workplace and society is growing louder by the day, with equity emerging at the forefront as a core focus area.
Over the past several decades, companies have invested heavily in DEI programs and initiatives. Yet many DEI programs that exist today are still focused on compliance and performative actions, siloed in HR departments, and lack the commitment and involvement of senior leaders. Few are designed to shift systems or address the patterns of exclusion, oppression, and disadvantage underrepresented and marginalized groups continue to face in the workplace. For the most part, it is members of marginalized communities who take up the mantle to do the work of challenging discriminatory practices and systems. As leaders, every time we automatically turn to the woman, the Black or Brown leader, the person with a disability, or any other individual belonging to a marginalized community to take responsibility for identifying and addressing organizational inequities, we are abdicating our own role and responsibility.
This has to change.
As leaders, we can’t sit back and wait for the arc of history to bend by itself, or keep expecting others to put their shoulders to the wheel. We can’t outsource the work to others, or delegate it to the diversity team or diversity leaders in our organizations. If we want a more just world, one in which the playing field begins to equalize, we need to understand our own role and responsibility to bend the arc, especially if we hold positions of power and influence but have been sitting on the sidelines.
Our sphere of influence is bigger than we perceive, and we squander the power and resources we have access to every day that we remain inactive and uninvolved.
The time for inclusive leadership has never been more urgent. When senior leaders set clear expectations for equity and inclusion and get personally involved in disrupting the status quo, it creates a ripple effect throughout the organization. Inclusive leaders understand the capital to which they have access, and they know how to deploy it for the greater good. They align themselves in solidarity with marginalized groups in order to amplify voices and experiences, and they leverage their power and influence to accelerate the change they seek. Through their intentional and visible commitment to DEI, inclusive leaders are able to instill high levels of trust in their organizations, which in turn drives the followership that is needed to achieve real change.
There is no such thing as the perfect time or the right way to do this work. The time is now, and these conversations are already underway. The only choice we have as inclusive leaders is to step up and show up, however imperfectly, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
As leaders, we are already equipped to bring so much to the change effort. It’s time to activate our power and influence. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get off the sidelines. If we want a more just world, we need to step into our role in making change happen.
Jennifer Brown (she/her/hers), Wall Street Journal Best-Selling Author, Speaker and Founder & CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting