Sandbox is incredibly excited to debut this guest blog post, written by Dr. Kristen Liesch, Co-CEO & Co-Founder of Tidal Equality. Dr. Liesch is a strategist and educator who empowers individuals and organizations to design equitable change in processes, products, services, and more, in radically simple and effective ways.
So, without further adieu, continue reading to dive into this blog post about strategies for creating systemic, equitable change from the bottom up.
Once upon a time, in 2016, a news anchor for the BBC found himself on a long drive through the countryside. Tuning in to a BBC station, he had an eye-opening – er, ear-opening – experience. He noticed that, after listening to over an hour of programming, he hadn’t heard the voice of a single woman. He thought to himself, “That’s not okay. I think we can do better.”
Ros Atkins is what we might call a “changemaker”; someone who observes and/or experiences inequality and wants to do something about it.
And this was the inciting incident that would grow into an idea for seeing 50:50 gender representation in news media – a plan, a pilot, gaining momentum and engagement and support until today, 3½ years later, it has over 500 BBC content teams and more than 6000 BBC journalists taking part. All without first securing leadership buy-in or budget.
“How is that possible?” You might ask. “Did he provide unconscious bias training to his team? Did he create a ‘woman pundit mentorship program’? Or conduct an audit, and then benchmark against industry peers? Did he send out a pulse survey to see whether his concern was shared more broadly across the organization?”
*Spoiler alert* He did not.
“How then,” you might ask, “did he spark and spearhead such a formidable transformation without making use of the tools of the D&I trade?”
I might ask (and I did, in fact, ask him) whether he undertook a personal study project, examining the mechanics of social change in successful social movements of the past. Or if he researched the various “determinants” of effective behavioural and equitable change as documented in the academic literature before carefully concocting his plan?
His answer? A hard “no” to both. (Plus a bit of a measured chuckle.)
The story of what he did do, and how he did it, provides the case study for exploring 6 strategies for creating systemic, equitable change.
STRATEGY: Consider power dynamics and politics
EXAMPLE: “What power do I (not) have, who might be onside, what levers can I pull?”
Because, frankly, there is power involved. Certain people wield it, grant it strategically, grapple for it, or hold it in a death grip. And understanding where that power sits, and with whom, is key to strategic change.
The first steps in the civil rights movement did not look like Booker T. Washington requesting an audience with President Roosevelt to ask for greater equality for the Black community. No. Roosevelt invited Washington to the White House only once Washington had been a recognized leader in the African American community for over a decade.
When Ros Atkins reflected on the goal of increasing the representation of women, he was already aware of how challenging it could be to lobby for a new idea or project. As Chilazi, Rattan and Georgeac point out in their case study for the London Business School on Atkins and the 50:50 project, “Atkins had prestige but not power.”
He was wanting change, after all, and anyone who has worked to create change knows that regardless of the nature of the change on the docket, there are always those who will be resistant to change.
So, be cognizant that whatever it is you’re seeking to change – the idea, the project – doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but will be subject to the interplay of power and politics. Get the lay of the land and keep these dynamics in mind as you craft your first or next steps.
Tidal Equality’s co-CEO and co-Founder Anna Dewar Gully often coaches leaders and changemakers alike in how to make change. She often says, “don’t start where there’s already resistance. Too often, folks in change-focused roles (like D&I) start by trying to persuade the most recalcitrant audience first, thinking ‘I need to get these difficult leaders/stakeholders on board first or they will quash our project, they will roll their eyes, etc.’
“But that rarely works. What happens instead is your initiative ends up taking on the shape of the objectors’ perspectives, further holding back progress.
“Instead, focus on knitting together the potential coalition of changemakers and natural champions. And seek to deeply understand those changemakers’ experiences, perspectives, goals for change, and ideas about how to get there. Then focus on building a vision for change that all of the changemakers can get behind.
“It’s harder to resist a well-organized coalition of changemakers with a clearly articulated ask, than it is to resist a single changemaker asking reluctant leaders to play ball. Too many initiatives for equity in organizations waste their time – sometimes decades – trying to appease folks who will never buy into the change imperative. If you make the change, those leaders will either get on board, or they will get out of the way. In either case you will have changed your organization for the better.”
EXAMPLE: “Hey team, is this something you care about, too? Want to try to do something about it?”
You open an email on a Monday morning from a colleague at work, and the subject line is:
“Mandatory… [insert here]”
How do you feel?
Unless the next words are “ice cream eating at lunch time,” I can tell you that I’d read on with an eyebrow raised. It’s rare to put the qualifier “mandatory” in front of anything and get an enthusiastic response. Even gentle nudges, recommendations or suggestions aren’t always well-received – where do you think the word “voluntelling” came from?
When Ros Atkins had an idea for the kind of change he wanted to make, he sat down with the editor and producer of his program, had the conversation about what he had heard during that car ride, and pitched a vision for something more equal, and asked them if it was something they cared about, too, and something they might want to try fixing. Atkins explained to me: “People who I thought were not convinced of the merit of pursuing this goal, I didn’t engage at all at this early stage. I didn’t seek to persuade them. I didn’t seek to involve them. At first, I needed allies to help me to prove this was possible,” Atkins explains.
It was a priority to Atkins that what came to be known as the 50:50 project was “dynamic and exciting – something that people wanted to be a part of since it was completely voluntary.” And it was also something Atkins promised his team they could stop after a month if they wanted. Not only that, “Atkins also made a vow to himself and his team. It would not be their job, nor their goal, to convince anyone to join the 50:50 Project. Instead, their goal would be to spread the word and to offer support and advice to colleagues who wanted to take part” (Chilazi, Rattan, Georgeac).
I asked Atkins why he felt it was so critical for the 50:50 initiative to be voluntary. “There are a few reasons,” he explained.
“I had no power. I am not a manager, I can’t tell a single person at the BBC to do anything.”
“Looking back over my career, I’d wasted too much energy trying to persuade people to do things with me that they didn’t want to do. It hardly ever worked. And it used to cause upset and took time, and so on. When I started 50:50, I made a strict rule: I’ll work with anyone who’s keen to get involved, but I’m only going to work with them if they’d like to do it. And that way we can spend all our energy trying to address this issue, and none of the energy trying to address whether we should be addressing this issue.
“Finally, teams of people and individuals are working hard, they’ve already got a full day. You turn up and say, ‘Here’s something extra’, their first reaction is going to be, ‘I’m not sure I’ve got time.’ When you make it voluntary, you take all the heat out of it. It removes one of the main obstacles of starting. And my experience is, once people start, they realize it’s not undermining the quality of their work, it’s not onerous, it’s not some of the things they feared it might be… but me saying that to them is nowhere near as convincing as them experiencing it.
“For me, being able to say ‘it’s voluntary’ has taken the heat and the tension out of so many meetings I’ve been in where there’s been some resistance to the idea. Sometimes the outcome is that they don’t do it. I could list you a number of BBC teams who were initially like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work for us now.’ And then months later, in some cases years later, they have come back to me when they felt ready to do it, and they started and made a success of it. It just removes one of the greatest points of tension in the process of getting involved if you tell people, ‘You don’t have to.’ We always advise partners considering 50:50 to start small, prove it works, make a success of it, and then grow it. The biggest single driver of 50:50 inside the BBC is proof that it works. One team that isn’t doing it looks at another team that they respect and they go ‘Oh right, they’re doing it, and it’s working.’”
Research shows that the positive effects of diversity initiatives can only be realized in voluntary settings. But how many diversity trainings or initiatives have you come across that have been “dynamic and exciting”, or, for that matter, voluntary? A lot of the tactics we see being used today to combat racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination in the workplace look a lot like trying to convince (or forcing), say, all middle managers to take part in microaggression awareness training, and also trying to convince them to not be the kind of people who perpetrate microaggressions, for example.
STRATEGY: Work within constraints, design a job-relevant project
EXAMPLE: Atkins’ team spent less than 2 minutes a day on their gender tally, and it became part of the post-show debrief
“Atkins thought through a typical day in the newsroom…. [he] knew first-hand how fast-paced producers’ work already was. Adding a new demand during the lead-up into the show was doomed to fail” (Chilazi, Rattan, Georgeac). Atkins had learned through the course of his career that he didn’t have the power to impose a top-down initiative to improve gender diversity in reporting, so he needed to rely on the support and championship of allies to the cause, and he’d already seen how “teams had their diversity failings highlighted by people who didn’t understand the pressures of making content” (Chilazi, Rattan, Georgeac). Atkins knew that anything he proposed had to fit the constraints of the actual job people had to do on a day-to-day basis.
So, Atkins invited critique and skepticism. “I work with brilliant, independent, sceptical colleagues who are masters of asking difficult questions, and I wanted them to ask difficult questions of me. And they did: ‘Is this going to increase workload?’ ‘What if it turns out to be too much work?’ ‘How can we make sure the rest of the organization is aware of what we’re doing?’ That scepticism was welcome because the idea needed to be tested.” Atkins also explains that he sought feedback from another group: “Particularly because I’m a man, I wanted to run what I was doing by some of the most brilliant women I knew at the BBC. I said, ‘Can you sit down with me? I’ll tell you what I’m proposing, and I want you to rip it apart.’ Stress-testing was a really vital part of the process.”
Working within constraints and designing a job-relevant project looks like asking:
How will our idea fit – or not fit – alongside the pressures we already face on a day-to-day basis? Is there some way we can streamline it? What are we doing already, anyway? What can we tweak?
Note: working within constraints doesn’t look like doing research to create a “business case” for your leadership team. It doesn’t look like needing leaders to give you the go-ahead. I’d argue that showing up with a clever graph proving the ROI isn’t going to work – because it’s never worked.
Atkins explains, “In a corporate hierarchy, I’ve often found that a good idea alone isn’t good enough to cut through. If you have something tangible, such as a pilot programme, it is far easier to convince the organisation that it’s worth doing” (Chilazi, Rattan, Georgeac). In that way, you’re likely to “make a ruckus”, as Seth Godin says. And a ruckus is hard to ignore.
STRATEGY: Set goals and solve problems collaboratively
EXAMPLE: Atkins’ team set a goal of 50:50 gender representation* on their show
Having a goal means having something to work toward.
Everyone has a role to play. Everyone can contribute to advancing closer to the goal. Everyone’s perspectives and effort are of value. The result isn’t achieved immediately, but there’s a clear target.
Atkins reflects, “I felt like we had become stuck in a constant state of trying: we accepted that representing women equally in our journalism was a desirable goal but we had also accepted that it wasn’t possible. The very real obstacles to achieving equal representation had morphed into justifications for not getting there.” Having this clear goal “pushed teams to be more thoughtful and creative about their journalism” (Chilazi, Rattan, Georgeac).
Siri Chilazi, Research Fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School and one of the authors of the 50:50 Project case study explains how decades of research support Atkins’ approach:
“Goals have been shown to meaningfully drive behaviour change by focusing our attention; prompting task-relevant effort; serving as an accountability mechanism; and inspiring resourcefulness and innovation.
“We use goals and targets to motivate us in most other areas of organizational life, from finance and sales to marketing and new product design. So why not D&I?” she asks. “Goals are a powerful, evidence-based tool to create accountability and social norms around the things we want to accomplish. If we are serious about creating more equitable and inclusive organisations, goals should be one of the first tools we deploy.”
Goal-setting in another context could look like:
Let’s aim to cultivate a workforce that mirrors the racial diversity of our city.
Let’s aim for 50% of our curriculum resources to be written by female authors.
Let’s aim to increase the representation of Black playwrights in this year’s theatre productions by 25%.
Which brings us to the next tactic…
STRATEGY: Be outcome – not output – oriented
EXAMPLE: “Let’s increase the proportion of women in our content to 50%.”
What’s the difference between outcome and output?
As my co-CEO Anna pointed out recently, “Most D&I programs are built tactically to produce measurable outputs, not strategically to produce outcomes” aka, hem hem, equality.
OUTPUT: “We’ve launched a women’s mentorship program, 100 women have now gone through the program – yay!”
OUTCOME: “We’ve identified and fixed 3 key barriers for the advancement of women and, as a result, this year we promoted 50% more women to senior leadership – yay!”
“First, the 50:50 Project’s end goal isn’t data collection. Our end goal is increasing the number of women in our content.”
The end goal wasn’t to have a comprehensive data set capturing the state of gender representation on his show.
The end goal wasn’t to benchmark his show’s gender representation against the industry average and maybe do better than the next prime-time show.
And in the first four months of the project, the show had increased its proportion of women contributors from 39% to 51%.
STRATEGY: Practice equitable behaviour over time
EXAMPLE: “Let’s increase the number of women in our content.”
In the early days of the 50:50 project, practicing equitable behaviour looked like:
Counting – the gender representation on the show every night.
Trying – show after show – to get closer to hitting that representation goal.
Innovating – new ways to find and secure female representation. It looked like learning to submit a commentator request “in the morning, rather than later in the day” which meant “a greater likelihood of securing coveted female star correspondents” (Chilazi, Rattan, Georgeac). It looked like collaboratively compiling a list of in-house women experts.
What could this look like in another context?
Riffing on the representation in media goal, a media & marketing company could aim for equal gender representation in their content, and practicing the same counting exercise and re-sourcing work.
HOW ABOUT IN SUPPLY CHAIN AND PROCUREMENT?
It could look like asking, time after time, is there an opportunity to engage a supplier with a commitment to sustainability and paying a living wage?
HOW ABOUT IN RECRUITMENT?
It could look like, one role at a time, redacting demographic details, then expanding to design a structured interview process, and so on.
HOW ABOUT IN UX DESIGN?
It could look like, before signing off on code, asking, is this accessible to people with a sight, hearing or dexterity disability?
A FINAL WORD
Since the civil rights movement, since the women’s liberation movement, since the gay rights movement, the “D&I” tactics have by and large remained the same and largely look like trainings or supports aimed at “fixing” individuals and not making systemic change (partly because they were never designed to make systemic change, but that’s another story.)
But this fact gives me so much hope! I feel the hope every time an Equity Sequence™️ learner asks themselves, “Was this designed with equity in mind” and answers “No.”
That might seem counterintuitive. And it certainly does to the Equity Sequence™ learner. They often feel down on themselves. But I tell them, Just think of all the things we currently create, produce, draft, ship, design, write, without equity in mind. Now imagine if we started creating, producing, drafting, shipping, designing, writing with equity in mind.
We could change the world.
So – this is my call for all the #changemakers:
don’t wait for a budget, don’t wait for buy-in.
Start innovating, start using strategies proven to work, and then try,
and maybe even fail,
then try again,
and then keep going, for as long as you can.
Until you’ve got something that’s working, even if only a little bit.
Then refine what you’re doing.
Then refine it some more.
Then invite others to join you.
So we can all make a ruckus, together.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Kristen Liesch has been named a Forbes D&I Trailblazer, and is a strategist and educator who empowers individuals and organizations to design equitable change in processes, products, services, and more, in radically simple and effective ways. Co-CEO and co-Founder of Tidal Equality, Kristen is also the co-creator of the Equity Sequence™️ – a powerful practice made up of 5 equity-focused strategic questions – that continues to equip people around the world to make equitable change wherever they work, learn, and play. Read more courageous content at Tidal Equality.