UN Sustainable Development Goals: Don’t let them be a missed D&I opportunity
By Jo Faragher on 18 April 2023
Working in D&I, it can be tempting sometimes to focus on internal targets and forget the bigger global picture. But more and more organisations are seeing how working towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can intersect well with their efforts to create more inclusive companies and better reflect their communities. The SDGs were adopted in 2015, listing 17 targets UN countries should achieve by 2030. These targets span a range of commitments from providing clean water to gender equality and “decent work”.
“We’re now on a seven-year clock,” says Atif Choudhury, chief executive of Diversity & Ability, a social enterprise working on social justice projects for disabled and neurodiverse people. “People don’t get fined if they don’t meet the goals so it can feel as though they don’t have any teeth, but it would be such a missed opportunity not to take them seriously if you work in D&I.” Too often, he argues, strands of D&I are put into silos such as disability or race. The SDGs take a more universal approach, so none of the goals refers explicitly to helping disabled people, but their focus on equity and social justice does this inherently. Research shows that disabled people are among the first victims of natural disasters or suffer more acutely from poverty, for example. In many ways, they are a good illustration of intersectionality, he adds.
Need for accountability
Choudhury argues that corporations are now at a crossroads with sustainability – but without accountability, nothing gets done. The organisation has been taking practical action to work towards the SGDs through partnerships with local and international charities, government departments and non-government organisations, offering training programmes that help disability practitioners and teachers in areas including assistive technology and disability needs assessments. Through these partnerships, D&A has delivered courses across seven different countries. One example is how the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) has learned more about the language we use around disability. A ministry representative from OECS said this of the courses: “It is hoped that the knowledge gained will not only enable the Ministry to use assistive technology to help children within the early years overcome their challenges, but that it will help to consider persons with disabilities as disabled persons because of the barriers that are placed by the society.”
But Chris Jay, CEO of Bascule Disability Training, believes the goals could be more specific. “Despite the use of an image of a wheelchair user on the ‘Reduced Inequalities’ goal on the UN’s website, there is barely any direct mention of support for people with disabilities within the targets,” he says. “Unfortunately, this underrepresentation in D&I is not uncommon, with many businesses leaving disability out of their diversity strategies entirely.” He points to research from the Return on Disability Group, which found that although 90% of companies claim to prioritise diversity, only 4% consider disability in these initiatives. He echoes Choudhury’s thoughts on the additional barriers to equity disabled people face, however, citing data from Scope showing people with disabilities face extra costs of an average of £583 a month. “With 1 in 6 people (over 1 billion) on the planet having a significant disability, (a number that is expected to increase especially as people live longer), there should be stronger support and consideration for this group, which may, in turn lead to increased visibility for people with disabilities when we consider all other equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives,” he adds.
That said, many organisations now frame their D&I work alongside sustainability and social responsibility issues, with some merging diversity functions with corporate social responsibility (CSR) or environmental, social and governance (ESG) teams. The Institute of Physics, the professional body for physicists in the UK and Ireland, aims to create a more diverse generation of physicists that will better be able to tackle the inequities highlighted by the SDGs, such as climate change and natural crises. “As a science-based organisation it is only natural that we look at the SDGs through the lens of the role we play in society to make sure physicists can work to find solutions to climate such as clean energy, health and food production,” says Rachel Youngman, deputy CEO. “To do this the IOP makes sure that it advocates for proper and sustainable investment into the education system and that there is a strong research, development and innovation ecosystem invested in by the government and with private sector investment.”
The body has an “emerging” ESG framework that includes vetting suppliers on carbon emissions and ensuring it reduces its own energy consumption. “What we are committed to doing is taking responsible decisions now that will impact future generations, by understanding the value placed by current and future employees on being part of an ethical and sustainable organisation,” she adds. The Institute has recently led a multi-partner international bid to invest £25 million into research collaboration between the UK and five African countries on climate change, weather management systems and renewable energy. This incorporates one of the core SDGs around gender diversity, Youngman explains. “Throughout that bid we have said that gender diversity must be core. Evidence from the UN shows that women are significantly disadvantaged from climate and extreme weather in Africa, and it is important that female physicists are part of the solutions,” she says.
STEM Returners, an organisation that supports people back into careers in science, technology, engineering and maths after a break, similarly aligns itself with a number of the goals: “Returnships provide a much-needed route back, usually to people who are economically inactive. Utilising returning skills is a fantastic way for organisations to demonstrate an outward looking approach to inclusion by moving beyond policies to action,” says Natalie Desty, the director. “Organisations welcoming returners are providing sustainable improvements to the sector including positive action on gender equality (46% of STEM returners are female compared to 14% in industry), decent work and economic growth (96% of returners have been offered a permanent role at the end of their returners programme) and reduced inequalities in the identification and selection of staff (34% of STEM returners are from minority ethnic groups compared to 9% in industry).”
Software company SAS has gone as far as calling out two of the SDGs as part of its focus on D&I. “Specifically, we aim to support Goal 4 and 8 of the UN SDGs by our dedication to education access as part of our education philanthropy focus and promoting a workplace worldwide that is inclusive and sustainable,” explains Danielle Pavliv, chief diversity officer. But this has paid off for its employer reputation too. The company has been recognised as a Great Place to Work “legend” by Fortune magazine, and its CEO’s work on strengthening reading proficiency have been recognised by Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of America’s leading companies. However organisations choose to tackle any of the UN SDGs, this shows that focusing on what’s happening outside the four walls of the business can be just as good for belonging as improving from within.
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