Article: The pandemic has exposed inequities like never before: Bain's Diversity Head

SheMatters

The pandemic has exposed inequities like never before: Bain's Diversity Head

The year 2020 has shone a spotlight on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) that exposed how far we need to go as a society, as well as the role that companies can and must play in addressing these topics, not only inside of our four walls but also more broadly in our communities, says Julie Coffman.
The pandemic has exposed inequities like never before: Bain's Diversity Head

Julie Coffman is a partner and the Chief Diversity Officer at Bain & Company. She is the head of global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Organization practices, as well as a leader in our global Healthcare practice.

Julie's organization work has been primarily around operating model redesigns to create alignment in organizational structure, processes, and roles/accountabilities. Major recent engagements have included developing an improved operating model for a mid-sized pharmaceutical company, developing effective leadership team governance and behaviors for a newly public life sciences company, improving decision effectiveness for a healthcare IT & services player, and developing the operating model infrastructure for population health management inside of a leading Academic Medical Center. She has also led the development of Bain Winning Culture and has extensive experience in leadership development and employee engagement.

Internally, Julie is the founding chair of Bain's Global Women's Leadership Council, which is focused on increasing the number of women in Bain's leadership ranks. Julie was also recognized as one of the 2011 Women Leaders in Consulting by Consulting Magazine.

Here are the excerpts of the interview.

The crisis has brought in many new trends in terms of how and where work gets done. What trends do you think will have significant implications for businesses in the long term?

If I take a DE&I lens to your question, I would say that the shift to virtual teaming and remote work has created many great opportunities but has also presented new challenges for all businesses.

The pandemic has forced us to be more flexible and more agile out of necessity – with that comes creativity in how we collaborate as teams and work together to solve problems. It’s created an openness and acceptance to not have to abide by the ‘’traditional’’ model. I believe that this has also created an expanded appreciation for different experiences, skillsets, and backgrounds that individuals can bring to the table and this new appreciation has allowed for people previously not included in conversations to have a seat at the table.

I expect that working virtually will continue as an accepted practice for many more companies and roles; this, in turn, will allow many individuals who might not otherwise be eligible for them (due to life circumstances or location) to have the opportunity to take on these jobs that were once inaccessible  

That said, there are certainly challenges that businesses will need to face longer-term. 2020 – through COVID-19, as well as the racial and social unrest that spanned the globe - exposed inequities like never before. For businesses to operate at their full potential they will need to ensure that they have created an environment that results in equitable outcomes, as well as a culture in which everyone feels they can fully thrive. We see working mothers leaving the workforce, we see COVID-19 disproportionately impacting certain populations, we see entire industries being disrupted and people out of work; as businesses, if we only celebrate how technology brings us together and not address how COVID-19 has also differentially affected those that are disadvantaged, we will have failed.

In the wake of the turmoil of 2020, do you think the global awareness for diversity, equity, and inclusion has seen a resurgence? How do you see the larger current DE&I landscape globally?

There is no question. 2020 shone a spotlight on DE&I that exposed how far we need to go as a society, as well as the role that companies can and must play in addressing these topics - not only inside of our four walls but also more broadly in our communities.

I think from a global perspective, the landscape is changing. There is much higher awareness among all of us about the inequities and injustices that persist in so many ways and the systemic factors that are at play. There seems to be an increasing understanding that ‘doing nothing' is not an option and that inaction has historically enabled many of the structural issues that exist today. People have been motivated to change – there is a sense of responsibility and accountability, at an individual, a corporate, and a societal level, to drive change faster.  

Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fact that some organizations don’t perceive diversity and inclusion as a core value? Or, are things changing?

Things are changing. The dialogue is changing. I do think companies are increasingly understanding their role in driving systemic change. I also think many are beginning to truly understand how valuable a diverse and inclusive workplace is from many different angles - whether that is on principles, from personal experiences, or business outcomes. The evidence on the value of diverse and inclusive teams is clear and well documented – they just perform better.   

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I think the events of 2020 have forced many firms to think beyond traditional ‘diversity’ and have emphasized the importance of inclusion and equity as well. To successfully recruit and retain a diverse workforce, you must have equitable talent processes and an inclusive culture that enables everyone to bring their unique skills and experiences fully to their work.

While things are changing, underrepresented groups still differentially face challenges of bias and exclusion. Those who have a heightened experience of being different from peers at work because of aspects of their identity (race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) face detrimental effects on health, well-being, and the ability to thrive. Companies that fail to recognize this will be left behind.

What are some bold steps that organizations and governments should take to fill the gaps and inequalities COVID-19 has exposed and create a fairer society?

Driving systemic and structural change should be the focus of organizations and governments to help create a more equitable society. With respect to the former, we believe that organizations have a responsibility to bring their collective voice and power to impact their broader societies.

COVID-19 has also dramatically affected many families with working parents – the realities of trying to balance working from home with child-care, education, and household tasks have been challenging for many families – and particularly working mothers. 

  • Current policies and benefits were not designed for a world in which working parents are monitoring virtual school or concerned about safe child care while simultaneously adjusting to major changes at work and worrying about the health of family and friends broadly.
  • This comes with major stress – financial, emotional – and the need for different levels of support from an employer; support that is designed around a more unpredictable environment and one in which traditional institutions of school or child care are not working in the same way. Most research would suggest this burden is disproportionately falling on working mothers, who are leaving the workforce or – if they are unable to – certainly struggling to thrive.
  • As organizations, we need to recognize that we cannot lose focus on our women right now, and in fact, need to be more creative in the ways that we can support working families with flexible arrangements, expansive benefits policies, and other types of structures to ensure that there is not an irreversible brain drain of female employees. 

Where do you see the DE&I agenda 2-5 years down the line? Do you expect significant changes in terms of how organizations perceive diversity and inclusion practices as a sustainable competitive advantage for their company?

Different companies are at different points in their DE&I journeys. Leading companies have seen this as a competitive advantage for years. Those that haven’t are fast catching on. 

DE&I is not a nice-to-have. It is a business imperative and a dialogue happening at the C-suite and Board of Directors level in nearly all major corporations today. At Bain, our DE&I journey started over 30 years ago with the formation of our first ERGs and has continued to evolve since then. In the past year, we (along with many other firms), have recognized the need to accelerate and amplify our efforts and have committed to increasing our focus and investment here.

What initiatives has Bain taken to build a diverse and inclusive workforce culture? Are they paying off? How do you measure the impact?

We have taken a multi-faceted approach to DE&I. Ensuring that we hire diverse talent is a high priority. Equally important is how we ensure we retain and develop all individuals once they join our firm. We have established a robust DE&I ecosystem within Bain (including a team of employees fully dedicated to DE&I ) to support our efforts across the firm and in our offices. These teams work in lockstep to ensure all aspects of DE&I are embedded in the fabric of all that we do across the firm – from recruiting, to building an inclusive culture, to training and ensuring that our support and development policies and processes are equitable. We also have formal ERGs focused on under-represented minority groups that focus on building culture and connectivity through a variety of programming and initiatives, including external engagement in our communities. Inclusion is core to who we are and how we engage with each other on a day-to-day basis.  While we have made progress, we would say we have a long way to go (and I believe any organization that says otherwise is not telling the full truth).

Read more such stories from the February 2021 issue of our e-magazine on 'The Moment to Fix the DE&I Equation'  

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Topics: SheMatters, Diversity, #ChooseToChallenge

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