MBA Lecture Series: Prof. Patricia Hewlin and Jay Hewlin on how to tackle EDI issues in any setting

On January 13, the McGill Desautels Faculty of Management hosted the most recent edition of its MBA Lecture Series, joined by Professor Patricia Faison Hewlin and former Faculty Lecturer Jay Hewlin who shared research findings related to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), and provided examples from their work with organizations across many industries.

Jay Hewlin opened the roundtable by telling the story of an encounter with a company in 2020, in which he was asked to aid in bolstering the company’s EDI strategy. He explained that the tone was urgent and that the company really stressed that this was an important priority.

What Jay noticed, though, was that there was an underlying feeling that this inquiry was reactionary rather than proactive. When he reached out to learn more, he found that this company had no appointed person assigned to ensuring EDI goals were met, no existing policies related to EDI, there was no budget for these efforts and no way of measuring success.

“Does that sound like a priority to you?” he asked the attendees.

To answer the question of why EDI is so hard to implement, he outlined the “three Ps:” priorities, policies, and people. The root of all EDI-related challenges, he said, is one or more of these three elements.

One of the most important things to look at when evaluating how to address EDI within an organization, Patricia and Jay emphasized was the importance of policies that are clear, well-defined and reflect EDI as a priority in a measurable manner.

Where issues can arise, explained Patricia, is when everyone has different definitions of equity, diversity and what it means to be inclusive. “Inclusion requires communication throughout the organization,” she said. “It requires getting to know each other and sharing more about ourselves so that we can create this environment where people belong.”

An obstacle to getting buy in for creating a more inclusive environment, Jay added, is that it requires some work. One must do extra work to share and reflect on what their unconscious biases are, for example.

“Those are sometimes hard questions to answer,” he said.

Patricia and Jay highlighted two fundamental barriers to successful EDI efforts: commitment and competence.

"Even when the commitment is present, the absence of competence will cause an organization’s EDI’s efforts to be unsuccessful,” Patricia said.

Successful EDI, she explains, requires a commitment to disruption and creating something new. What is being disrupted in successful EDI efforts? Persistent practices, policies and norms that systematically foster inequity and disparity.

“We will have different experiences in terms of information,” she said. “When you receive inside information that others have not, you will be better equipped to navigate the environment. If certain groups of people are receiving inside information, resources or mentorship, that disparity will persistently create an environment that hinders EDI efforts.” Hiring practices within an industry are influenced by this, according to Patricia. Women still hold clerical jobs more so than men, for example.

Embedded within the disruption is resistance, she adds.

“We have worked with a lot of organizations, leaders in their field who have a lot of influence,” she explained. “But their colleagues are telling them ‘What are you doing? Why are you making all of these changes?’ Or you may hear someone say ‘Well, you know we don’t want to compromise our standards for EDI.’” This implies an inherent assumption that diverse candidates do not equal quality candidates and that the “quality” or the “standard” is those who are already there.

To illustrate this, Patricia spoke of a study that showed that decision makers are less likely to add a woman to a board of directors once it includes two women. As well, once there is diversity, or representation or EDI initiatives in a space, there is a magnified sense of egalitarianism that can make the individuals within the space blind to discrimination or even worse, deny that discrimination exists.

In order for EDI to be successful it must be a conviction, Jay said. Successful EDI requires a sincere commitment to building competence on an ongoing basis.

“It’s critical to understand the impact of history on current structures, norms and ideologies,” said Patricia. “That’s often a missing link in EDI initiatives, [organizations] want to go straight away into talking about unconscious bias or how to increase diversity, but it’s important to understand the underpinnings.”

Both highlighted the importance of making an effort to understand Black, Indigenous and Asian-American history that wasn’t well integrated into the curriculums of most elementary and secondary skills and that many people did not learn of until well into their adulthood, if at all. As a result, we all have our own biases, which is normal but what’s important is putting in the work to identifying those biases and remaining open to correction. “The fact is we’re all ignorant on some level,” Jay said. “But we’re all learning and evolving.”

So how do you turn a preference for EDI, where the work isn’t being done because people aren’t ready or willing, into a conviction? The answer is accountability.

“Not everyone is going to see this as a conviction,” Patricia explained. “But if their performance evaluations will be negatively affected in terms of accountability, they have to do it. This is where the leader, the CEO, plays a role. The CEO must have the conviction because if the CEO doesn’t have it, then eventually the organization’s EDI initiatives will eventually topple down.”

Ultimately, in addition to having the right priorities, working those into new policies, structures and the establishment of new norms with proper accountability requires strong leadership. If it starts from the top, then it will trickle down into the organization’s culture.


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