How Leaders Can Implement a D&I Strategy

There isn't a one-size-fits-all method for creating a diverse and inclusive culture. Association leaders will need to learn from their staff—as well as the industry the association serves.

The association world, much like the corporate world, loves a good process. A process for decision making, a process for meeting planning, a process for orienting board members.

Not every element of running an association operates so simply, however. There is, for instance, no easy process for making your organization more diverse and inclusive.

At yet, the association industry seems to behave as if it wish there were. According to McKinley Advisors’ latest Economic Impact on Associations study [PDF], released last month, associations have become more comfortable including D&I in their public statements about values and mission—an easy enough process. But, the report cautions, there is a “common tendency among associations to identify diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts as a top organizational priority without implementing the specific strategies needed to advance efforts in a significant way.” (My colleague Emily Bratcher wrote about some the survey’s findings last month.)

A third of associations said increasing D&I among staff is not a priority.

To put some numbers behind that: A full third (34 percent) of the organizations surveyed said that increasing D&I among staff is not a priority, and 34 percent also say that their organization does not provide resources to ensure staff is sensitive to coworkers with different backgrounds. And, as the study points out, while associations have made strides to make the hiring process more equitable—more than two-thirds (72 percent) have an equal employment opportunity hiring policy—less work is being done after the hire.

“In the association sector, active strategies to advance [D&I], such as formal diversity trainings to management and staff, supporting diverse communities, and implementing mentoring programs and cross-training were among the least likely to be adopted,” the report says.

There’s plenty of research to show the business case behind D&I, that employees are more likely to stay in their jobs and share their ideas if they feel they’re in an environment where they believe that biases are responsibly addressed. Women leaders, cognizant of both gender and pay gaps, are more likely to take leadership positions early with smaller firms rather that soldier on in larger organizations, creating a vicious cycle where fewer women are in line for top leadership positions.

At the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition last month, Tina Tchen, a former Obama White House aide and current head of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, suggested that one reason these issues aren’t addressed is because legally they don’t have to be; laws regarding workplace culture being fairly narrow, organizations are free to persist with the culture they have, even if it’s toxic. Which makes perfunctory training sessions on workplace harassment and bias effective in a don’t-get-sued sense, but not in a broader cultural one. “We’ve been training for legal compliance,” Tchen said. “We haven’t been training for the culture we want.”

Gallup at Work recently published an article, “3 Requirements for a Diverse and Inclusive Culture,” that highlights the importance of leaders taking on conversations with employees that can improve the culture. This starts with “intentionally [creating] an environment where employees feel they can safely express themselves and where specific concerns can be raised with transparency and confidence.”

That tone-at-the-top activity is valuable for any organization. But association leaders are in a privileged position: They can advocate not just for the organization’s internal culture, but for the culture of the industry it serves. Earlier this month, for instance, five aviation and aerospace associations announced that they’re collaborating on a research project exploring the gender gap in their industry. As the announcement from one of the participants, the International Air Transport Association, put it: “Fewer than one quarter of the American aerospace workforce are women, with an even smaller percentage in leadership roles.  More can and should be done to enable the advancement of women into important leadership roles in the global aviation and aerospace sector.”

This isn’t yet the implementation we’re looking for. But it is an acknowledgment that waiting for a broad-brush set of legal guidelines that you can schedule a training session for isn’t going to fix cultural challenges. Better to understand what’s going on that’s unique to your workplace and industry and look for solutions based on that understanding.

(FabrikaCr/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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