How helpful are targets and quotas in DE&I?
By Annie Makoff on 22 May 2023
The effectiveness of diversity quotas and targets has long been a hot topic. Some believe they can help provide clear goals and are a good way to measure progress, others believe they too easily become tick-box exercises which are then forgotten about once a specific target has been reached or a quota fulfilled.
In reality, the issue is a lot more nuanced. We spoke to a number of DE&I practitioners for their views.
Quotas can detract from the bigger issues
Abi Adamson, Founder and DEI director, The Diversity Partnership
Quotas do very little other than detract from the bigger issues. Tackling diversity is not about fixing a number, it is about changing a culture. Which means, those companies that take a tick-box approach by focusing on aspects like quotas, risk building more inequalities. Quotas help companies appear to change, in comparison to genuinely wanting to change. Don’t fall victim to the pressure of change. Ill-considered strategies are praying into the hands of tokenism.
It’s essential organisations collect diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) data to benchmark their performance against the industry. DEI data measurement can help to reveal where an organisation is falling short and what needs to change – for example, if recruitment practices are biased and outdated. In turn, this will help organisations be more intentional about their DEI actions.
Targets are useful to measure progress and improve accountability – but must be rooted in wider business and DEI strategy
Caroline Fox, Global ED&I Strategy Lead, Nigel Frank International
Targets are a means of approaching greater accountability. Ensuring that everyone involved understands the context of target conversations and has a sense of the business’ broader EDI journey is essential for generating meaningful engagement. This is particularly important for target-orientated businesses, where goals might often be assessed solely in numerical terms.
Ensuring that people from different departments and backgrounds can contribute their perspectives is also important. Similarly, it’s vital that targets are planned and implemented as part of a wider strategy and rooted in shared understanding across a business.
Designing an approach that factors an intersectional analysis is also essential for ensuring that we’re accounting for how different issues actually play out and not treating them as abstract, isolated concerns. Intersectionality and co-design help mitigate the possibilities of restrictive, overly narrow targets that don’t allow for nuance and variation.
Quotas can help with gender diversity if used substantively rather than symbolically; but expecting quotas to resolve wider, systemic issues will result in failure
Esha Mendiratta, Assistant Professor of International Business, Vlerick Business School
Quotas and targets have solved the long-standing gender representation problem at the highest levels, which is a good start – but it does not always trickle down to lower levels in the short to medium term.
In general, when companies use quotas substantively instead of symbolically, they can help DEI and HR professionals specifically with gender diversity. Of course, there is the issue of including intersectional identities and other kinds of minorities in leadership positions that these policies do not address. Concerning wider, systemic issues related to minorities, I am not sure if we should expect quotas to redress those in isolation. Working on these issues that are deeply embedded in our societal and firm structures requires a larger policy toolkit within firms, and quotas can only be one measure within that toolkit. If we expect quotas to resolve all issues related to minorities, or even just gender, we have already set the policy up for failure.
I think firms/DEI/HR leaders and regulators should focus on a) clarifying the aims of these policies and identifying what they can achieve realistically, b) framing them in ways that highlight their meritocratic and corrective nature, and c) viewing them as only one tool in their repertoire to address systemic issues faced by minorities.
Quotas can be a useful framework but can too easily become a tick-box exercise
Rachael Kinsella, Editor in Chief, iResearch Services
Quotas can be a useful framework for setting goals as long as genuine action follows. That being said, leaders will benefit far more from implementing meaningful initiatives and measuring their impact, rather than relying on simply hitting numbers, which can be a tick-box exercise and lead to further exclusion of particular groups if the initiatives aren’t mindful of intersectionality. This is because when it comes to DE&I initiatives, one size does not fit all.
Leaders must recognise that intersecting identities exist and examine how exclusion can be compounded along multiple lines. For example, the gender pay gap is much worse for women coming from Black backgrounds. While LGTBQ+ people are underrepresented in professional services at senior levels, lesbians are much more affected in terms of representation across all levels, from entry positions upwards. Disability inclusion also needs to be viewed through this intersectional lens and is often missed.
Not considering intersectionality in this way is a common area where employers miss out on the bigger picture and it can cause more issues than it solves. Businesses need to thoughtfully and genuinely address DE&I issues and be able to show the numbers to back them up.
Implementing an inclusivity index may be more helpful than targets
Gita Singham-Willis, Founding Partner, Cadence Innova and co-chair MCA D&I working group
This is a thorny issue and one I have personally gone back on forth on.
We need to understand the data to know how we are progressing in our drive to improve diversity and inclusion. Measurement is key and this usually leads to the question about targets as it can help us understand what ‘good’ looks like, and how good do we want to be?
However, targets can be unhelpful if organisations think they have completed the job when they have reached their targets.
A level of improvement in KPIs is perhaps a better target, but they should be built around what you are trying to achieve as an organisation.
Inclusivity breeds diversity. The data measured needs to be more than the basic diversity statistics. It needs to be about how individuals feel. How included are they? Do they see diversity in their environment? What difficulties do they encounter? Do they feel they have role models and allies?
I believe an inclusivity index is often a better target to try and achieve, working alongside the trends in an organisation’s diversity statistics.
Quotas are useful for the start of D&I journey – but the ultimate aim must always be full inclusion
Dr Leanne Dawson, EDI consultant, author, and academic
Quotas and targets can be very useful for organisations at the start of their D&I journey or if they need tangible D&I goals. They can focus organisations’ attention on seeking colleagues beyond their norm and place onus on the organisation to find the talent, rather than all of the pressure being on underrepresented applicants. This has to be done carefully: no one wants to feel as if they are being hired as a token or to meet a quota.
At a very basic level, all employees need to be aware of why quotas are needed and the type of inclusive culture they are striving towards, which means D&I training and support at all levels. They need to be aware of the value of a culture add, rather than a culture fit. Organisations need to work hard to create a feeling of belonging and of psychological safety for all of their hires, too, and that practical needs are met. Hiring your first employee with a visible disability is not going to work well if the building they’re expected to work in is not accessible, for example.
When I work with organisations, from small grassroots arts spaces through to big name engineering firms and global charities, I always make clear we’re not just going to tick boxes – which is damaging to both employees and the brand – but aim for full inclusion. And that means quotas are only useful if an organisation is not going to stop striving for great D&I once the quota is filled.
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