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Why inclusion and diversity are key to business growth

Business needs inclusion and diversity at its heart to overcome new challenges, says Caroline Williams, Director, Open Programmes.

The past 25 years have seen unparalleled speed and breadth of change in process, opportunity and expectations, with the School there to help leaders adapt to the disruptive and often exciting new realities.

When we look forward to the next 25 years, though, the changes ahead will likely eclipse even these developments in their speed and consequence. Of all the trends in motion, it is arguably diversity that will have the biggest impact on the future of business – marking out who survives, who thrives and who doesn’t. 

Diversity is at the heart of sustainability in all senses, from environment to business culture, from the internet of things to the landscape of AI. And it means nothing short of a revolution in how and why we do business – and by what metrics we measure success.

You can’t have critical thinking without experience to help you grow.

At this point in time, with intense social and business change accelerated by both the digital revolution and the pandemic, when environmental crises have become regular rather than extraordinary events and social justice movements have underlined generational impatience with a narrow status quo of power and visibility, we are at a crossroads.

Business is only just acknowledging its power and responsibility to shape the world, not just its own balance sheets.

'These are purpose-led, complex challenges that will need inclusion as a big part of any strategy to understand the ways forward,’ says Caroline.

‘If you just have one type of group of people in an organisation going through these conversations, it's inevitable you won't interrogate the strategies that you're paying forward to make sure that you're doing the right things. You can’t have critical thinking without diversity of experience to help you grow.’


Voices of reason

The business benefits of diversity are already well documented, from product to profitability, increasing both innovation and the breadth and depth of problem solving. A pre-pandemic McKinsey report Delivering Through Diversity showed companies in the top quartile of their rankings for successful gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to have above-average profitability. For ethnic and cultural diversity, that figure was 33%.

Deloitte research has shown that innovation revenues accelerated by 83% for organisations practising an authentically diverse culture, while the likelihood of bankruptcy is reduced by 20% if a woman is on the board. Perhaps most striking, companies in the top quartile for gender balance are likely to outperform less balanced competitors.

But when we talk about diversity, the picture is greater than ‘just’ gender and ethnicity, with socioeconomic, disability and neuro-variance inclusion also shown to add crucial dimensions to business performance. Recent initiatives, from companies as diverse as Microsoft, SAP, JP Morgan and EY, to actively advertise for neurodivergent employees indicate that business is waking up to the competitive advantage a broader talent pipeline can yield.

Data insights in return show that one in five of Gen Z, the generation of the future, have decided not to apply to companies which they perceive to lack resources for employees who identify as neurodivergent.

Diverse future

In short, a diverse workplace is a future-proofed workplace, but the foundations are still only being laid today. Accurate and meaningful data is still patchy. Gender is arguably the best-documented area of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I), having made significant gains over the past 25 years.

Yet the pandemic has shown any forward movement can still be thrown off-course.

Although women make up 39% of global employment they endured 54% of job losses.

Research indicates female jobs were 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than men’s jobs. Women comprise 39% of global employment but endured 54% of job losses.

While female leaders such as Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Jacinda Arden of New Zealand and then German Chancellor Angela Merkel led much-lauded Covid-19 responses, World Economic Forum research shows how women also played a huge and largely invisible role in propping up the wider economy during the crisis – providing unpaid care and shouldering the bulk of the domestic burden.

As far as gender equality goes, the future of sustainable business requires buy-in from everyone.

‘This is definitely a partnership,’ says Caroline. ‘Gender-neutral policies such as equality acts can highlight gender pay gaps, but women are still independently monitoring job adverts or talking with colleagues to gain more insight into fairness of pay, which indicates trust is low.’

She cites lengthening paid maternity leave, increased tax relief and childcare subsidies as critical levers, pointing to Singapore, where women’s representation in the labour force rose from 28% in 1970 to 58% in 2016, as a leading proponent. But she notes other approaches are important too, such as increasing paternity pay for men and encouraging more active male allies at work.

Research by the Boston Consulting Group suggests when men are ‘aware’ and ‘advocates’ of inclusion programmes focused on women, 96% of organisations achieve progress, compared with 30% of organisations when they’re not.

The ‘new normal’ of hybrid working will shape the diversity agenda for decades to come, with profound implications for how future business will look, feel and operate — and who benefits from its opportunities.

Recommended video: Our commitment to equality

Business needs to be geared to regenerative strategies for our planet

Braver new world

Ultimately, diversity is about creating both solutions and opportunities, as our Oxford Smart Space episode on diversity highlights, maximising the agility business will need to rise to the battle against climate change. If continual growth has been the goal of capitalist economics, then new metrics of success will have to come into play. Businesses will need to redefine their purpose, but it won’t be enough to focus on sustainability.

‘Future business needs to be geared to more regenerative strategies for the planet, because we know that 2050 is a key date for global climate goals,’ says Caroline.

‘We need to understand how we can connect with the mission of the organisation to solve these huge, complex problems. If that mission is still transactional when you try to transition from one state to another, that’s as much as you’re going to get.

‘You’re not going to get that sustainability piece; you’re going to get that solving-the-immediate-problem piece. But you’re not really doing that either, because you’re trying to address something without looking further on at how that’s going to impact down the line.’

Problems will also be solved in ways that are both local and global. As Caroline notes, ‘From a strategic perspective, if your organisation wants to engage with a global consumer base, a global workforce is critical. If equality across your consumer groups is paramount to your success, building an inclusive board sets the tone.

‘Inviting more people to your table and listening to what they have to say is a way to build critical thinking.’

Good business

Some companies are embedding purpose into their raison d’etre, embodying the kind of business that will define the new era. Schneider Electric, for example, believes access to energy is a ‘basic human right’ and actively cultivates a global consumer base and a workforce that is local, equitable and diverse.

Profit will not become a dirty word though, as future businesses reframe it as part of sustainability. Likewise, inclusion is just basic good business sense. The global disability market, for example, is currently worth $8trn (£6trn) and serves 1.3 billion people – with an ageing global demographic that is set to grow.


What will remain constant as business evolves though, is the role of high-impact executive education development to provide a crucial edge for businesses and leaders.

For Caroline, immersion in an environment where multi-disciplinary evidence, experience and viewpoints can be accessed provides the critical space necessary to develop insightful trains of thought: ‘Faculty grounding of evidence and experience through application requires conversation, debate and reflection. It is vital for identifying blind spots or unchecked bias among other things, and for resetting or compounding strategies to achieve the diversity and impact goals an organisation has committed to.

'It’s about leaders having the courage to bring those diverse conversations into the room and realise they’re not necessarily going to roll out in a way you expected, but they can offer solutions you potentially hadn’t even thought about.' 

In the end, she notes, 'the impact requires measurement, measurement requires goals, goals require great leaders, great leaders require knowledge.'

The future of business then will truly be the sum of what we have learned – together.