Why is diversity important in the workplace, asks Inspirefest panel

4 Jul 2016

Judith Williams (Dropbox) and Margot Slattery (Sodexo) appear on diversity and inclusion Inspirefest panel. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Diversity and inclusion are watchwords in tech right now. But what are the real-life effects of diverse and inclusive workforces?

This question was the focus of a diversity and inclusion panel chaired by Ann O’Dea at Inspirefest last Thursday (30 June).

Bringing together Sodexo Ireland president Margot Slattery, Fidelity International head of technology Stuart Warner, and keynote speakers Ellyn Shook (Accenture chief leadership and human resources officer) and Judith Williams (Dropbox global head of diversity), the panel shone a spotlight on why diversity and inclusion need to remain a focus in recruitment and in company mentality.

It’s an important topic, and an area in which a lot of work is still needed, for myriad reasons. Chief among these, of course, is the importance of having a representative workforce, but lack of diversity can also affect your bottom line.

As Warner pointed out, a company that doesn’t reflect the diversity of its clients and customers can never fully succeed.

“I think it’s fair to say at the moment that we don’t represent our client base. And I think if you look forward two to three, four, years out, it’s going to be even more different. So if we don’t keep up and we don’t change our workforce, that’s going to be a real challenge, to compete.”

Furthermore, diversity drives innovation, a point Shook made in both her keynote and during the panel discussion.

“Being innovative is essential for Accenture, because we work with our clients to solve their most challenging problems, so you can’t do that if everyone looks and thinks the same. You’re not going to get the most innovative results.”

Achieving diversity

The panel went on to discuss what each of them is doing within their organisations to create more diverse workforces. Shook and Warner both touched on the idea of returnships – older former employees returning to work after leaves of absence, etc – and how they can make a big difference to women (and men) who left the workplace to start and support families.

Turning to the issue of LGBT equality, the panel discussed how marriage equality laws in Ireland and the US had affected the workforce.

According to Slattery: “Going into work on the Monday morning after the Friday and the Saturday [after the marriage equality referendum], it felt like stepping on a new planet. Everything was radically different. For the first time ever, we felt really, really ourselves.

“But also, I found the whole workplace opened up, because I think organisations that were perhaps a little reluctant here about embracing LGBT – who were perhaps maybe a little nervous about what steps they should take – they suddenly felt free to also start to be inclusive around this. So that started changing, and then those who were already well down the path had sort of gone to a new level, as well.”

Finally, O’Dea asked the panellists what advice they would give to employees who want to make their workplaces more inclusive, and here Williams delivered the real clarion call of the panel.

“All of us can be allies to people who are different from us. I think it’s not enough to speak up about the issues that are relevant to you, but to look at your colleagues and speak up for other issues. Because sometimes it gets exhausting to be the only one… Don’t just focus in an insular way.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM.

Kirsty Tobin was careers editor at Silicon Republic