During the introduction to the Omniwomen UK Leadership Summit, we heard that 50% of Omnicom is now female; we have gender balance throughout the organisation from graduates to board members. This is truly impressive in an industry that is a diversity laggard. But this summit wasn’t about celebrating hitting a target.
It was pointed out that companies focussed on hitting the numbers are still having the old conversation: that we need to be more diverse, we need to get more ‘different’ in. Yes, we do. But not to hit targets and tick boxes. Our industry needs diversity because it’s out of touch with the modern world. We exist to connect brands to people but we’re still trading off old-fashioned notions of who real people are.
The last speaker of the day, Dr Caroline Casey, preached to the audience to get off the fence: “you can’t be frightened of the fire, you must become it”. “Labels are for jam jars & packages” she railed. No-one is defined by one aspect of themselves. Getting a seat at the table because you tick a box is downright offensive. Diversity isn’t about having the right balance of labels around your board table.
Furthermore, neither is diversity about fitting in or in the words of Sheryl Sandberg ‘Leaning in’. Caroline reminded us that fitting in is not the same as belonging. All day we heard stories from women who had struggled to fit in. Even if fitted, they still struggled to be understood. Ruth Hunt railed against having to be a “good gay”. Sophie Walker felt stifled by the ‘strong women’ cliché. Claire Sanderson told us that depression doesn’t make her less able, it makes her stronger. Jo-anne Robertson’s council estate values weren’t a shame, they are the reason she has thrived. These are all women who refuse to be defined by their difference. Even the men (but just the good ones, our ‘allies’) can be different. Difference is singular, exceptional, totemic. Diversity is collective & universal. Diversity is in ‘we’ not ‘me’. It’s in inclusion, belonging & unity. Lenora Billings-Harris summed it all up in the concept of UBUNTU: I am because we are. We are because I am.
My big learning from this inspirational day wasn’t about how diverse our company needs to be, although that’s still a truth: we may have achieved gender balance but we’re a long way off reflecting the real world in terms of our ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and neuro-diversity. What I learnt most from the wonderful speakers was the power of our collective individuality. I left feeling the need to get past the labels & numbers and into the stories. Do I recognise people as individuals? Do I really know my people’s stories? Do I create the culture that gives people the space to be heard? This is how I help to turn the ‘me’ into the ‘we ‘ to help achieve diversity.