The DEI Dynamic: Focusing on Diversity is a Worthwhile EffortMay 11, 2021

May 11, 2021

The DEI Dynamic: Focusing on Diversity is a Worthwhile Effort

A  year ago, companies in the insurance and finance sectors had already started on a path to address racial imbalances. But the tragedy of George Floyd, and the widespread protests against police brutality and systemic racism that followed, put diversity, equity and inclusion — or “DEI” — on the front burner for many other industries. Formerly relegated to the HR department, DEI is now a buzzword that permeates every aspect of companies. Conferences and events, where insurance and financial companies are “on stage,” have emerged as a vital tool in helping build a diverse workforce and inclusive culture.

But the adoption of DEI practices is not just about companies becoming more relatable to customers or being a more appealing place to work. “It’s not only the right thing to do, it makes sense for business,” says Brad Monterio, chief learning officer, VP, member competency and learning for the California Society of Certified Public Accountants. “Diversity, equity and inclusion has an ROI.”

Lisa G. Williams, a Chicago-based DEI expert and strategist, says management consulting firm McKinsey & Company undertook three studies that showed how diversity is statistically correlated with profitability. “In 2014, the companies with the most women in leadership positions were 15% more likely to be profitable than companies with the least,” Williams says. “This number rose in 2017 to 21%, and rose again in 2019 to 25%. The figures were even more compelling in the case of racial and ethnic diversity. In 2014, the companies with the most racial diversity in leadership were 35% more likely to outperform companies with the least racial diversity when it came to profitability.” In the 2019 study, the figure rose to 36%. The overall conclusion: The more diversity there is in leadership, the more profitable a business will be; the less diversity there is, the less profitable.

A Younger Focus

Margaret Resce Milkint, global insurance practice leader at the executive search firm Diversified Search Group, thinks DEI not only elevates the brand of insurance, but helps solve another issue. “The average ages of professionals in insurance are well into their 50s, so we have great succession opportunities here,” Milkint says. “We need to augment the talent pipeline with fresh ideas and perspectives from outside of the insurance industry. It’s a wonderful time to bring in millennial talent, [Gen] Z talent, and out-of-industry talent to supplement the gaps that the industry will face as people are retiring in droves.” Milkint says DEI helps get the word out that insurance is forward-looking, and a conference setting provides a vehicle to be able to showcase the work of the industry. “We say insurance is good, insurance does good, insurance is a noble industry,” she adds. “It has been under the radar for many people for many years, and what we’re trying to do right now is get that word out and amplify it. The conference setting is a wonderful way to do that.”

Monterio, who identifies as a gay man, says the Black Lives Matter movement was a catalyst for the CPA association. “No two organizations will have the same journey — some will get there slow, some will get there very quickly,” says Monterio, who adds that accounting is traditionally a conservative profession, and that he’s received pushback from some corners. “There are members who think that professional societies should stick to the business of being professional societies, providing their education and giving them networking opportunities, and stay out of what they are calling ‘political events.’ My answer is – this isn’t a political thing, this is a human thing. It spurred us to not only talk about it, but to take action, to embed DEI into our DNA as an organization.”

Kristin Twombly, CMP, president of the Southern California chapter of MPI, says people coming to industry events want to feel represented in the room. “Having a panel from different walks of life and diversity of thought is incredibly valuable for our attendees,” Twombly says. “Black Lives Matter brought these issues to the forefront and really motivated our community. We’ve worked to make these issues a major priority.” The journey to more inclusive meetings and events starts with top-down initiatives, and most agree that, while smaller organizations may be struggling with the subject, at larger insurance and financial companies, the Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized the C-suite.

Crystal Washington, a technology strategist, futurist and keynote speaker, says conversations are happening today that never would have occurred as recently as 2019. “My clients, especially white males, are very quick to bring up the current social environment, how it’s a priority for them, and they’re not shying away from certain things,” Washington says. “There’s more of a consciousness going on.” Once organizers for an event have been empowered to invest in DEI beyond speeches and mission statements, the planning committee can create a task force to focus on the topic, setting diversity and inclusion goals for speakers, workshops, member outreach and marketing. Choice of location and venues, now that we are starting to move out into the world again, has newfound importance. Are sites fully ADA compliant? Will dietary options that are broader and more considerate be offered? Will hearing-impaired or sight-impaired attendees be properly accommodated?

“When we look at a venue, whether a hotel chain or facility, we also look at the organization itself — their brand and their corporation,” Monterio adds. “What is their own executive team’s stance on DEI? Does the CEO talk about it in their annual report and in communications to Wall Street and shareholders? It’s just as important to evaluate our partners and where we choose to spend our money as the experience of our members and customers at an in-person event. You can find a great venue on the beach, but that’s not the only thing. We want to make sure our members feel comfortable and safe and welcome.”

Location Matters

A location can also telegraph intent, suggests Williams. “Having a diverse group on the coordinating team can help think about things like choice of destination,” Williams says. Even timing can present unanticipated hurdles — imagine if in-person meetings were taking place at the height of last summer’s protests. “Sometimes, the timing can’t be avoided, but acknowledging it and showing sensitivity to the issue can release some of the emotions.” But the meat and potatoes of DEI at meetings and conferences will be found in the programming, and diversity should shine not just on panels focused on DEI, but throughout the agenda.

Optics matter, Milkint says. “Going back even just five years, on the platform we would see a lot of males and a lot of white faces,” Milkint says. “I think that we have first tackled gender, and we’ve done that well for white women. Our next challenge is to do better with black and brown women and men in insurance, and really putting an emphasis there. When no one looks like you on the screen or the stage, that’s a problem. It’s very visual and it hits you in the face.” Milkint continues: “We had that issue with a panel of white women who were all blonde. Here we were, thinking we were doing it, and people came back to me and said, ‘Of all those women, nobody looks like me. No one looks Hispanic, no one looks Asian, there’s no color up there.’ That was a wake-up call, when we thought we were doing so well with gender.”

But diversity goes beyond gender and skin color. Williams says religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability and genetic information are often overlooked. Other aspects of diversity to consider: marital status, geographic residence, educational background, socio-economic status and appearance, including height, weight and hairstyle. “Unconscious bias is within all of us,” Williams says. “I’m a woman of color; I’m Jewish; I grew up in the 70s listening to ‘Free to Be You and Me;’ and I have made social justice my life’s work. But I have hundreds of unconscious biases. We all do. Numerous studies over the past 20 years confirm that people harbor unconscious bias, even when they explicitly believe that racism is wrong. Most of us believe we are good decision makers, but in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception.” Williams adds: “For anyone who’s going to be touching the event, go through the process of understanding unconscious biases. If the event is lucky enough to have a team of people, the whole team should go through the training.”

To minimize inherent bias in panelists and speakers, Monterio suggests taking a fresh look at the process. “Historically, our process for recruiting speakers has been from the networks of the volunteers that serve on the conference planning committees,” Monterio says. “That, by nature, is limited in scope.” Monterio says he is now putting out speaker requests into the general marketplace. As he builds a new network of speakers, he is asking them to introduce him to their contacts. “Now, all of a sudden, that magnifies my access to others.”

Twombly says identifying people of diverse backgrounds requires an extra step. “Before, you might hire the first couple of people who seemed to qualify, but DEI takes a little more thought. It’s a matter of being cognizant. LinkedIn has been very helpful, but it’s about drilling down a layer, finding out about experience and background. We’re more thoughtful about it today, and it makes our programs all the more richer.”

A ‘Source of Pride’

As an experienced keynote presenter, Washington says she doesn’t find it particularly challenging, as an African-American woman, to speak to a room full of faces that mostly do not look like her. “I have a whole process,” Washington explains. “I ask my clients a lot of questions, and often I’ll ask them to either allow me to send out a survey to some of their attendees or they’ll identify several people within their organization for me to speak to. By asking a lot of questions, it enables you to get into the minds of people that you’re speaking to, and so you understand their worries. And once you understand people’s worries you understand people.”

Washington continues: “But here’s what’s interesting: Typically, I am not the demographic of who I speak to — that’s always been the case. But when there are one or two black people in the room, or only one or two women in the whole conference — they always wait until everyone else leaves, every single time, and pull me aside to say, ‘It’s so good to see you. You made me proud by being here.’” The payoff: “It’s emboldening to people within their organization that are represented by that person on the stage,” Washington says. “It’s giving them a source of pride, and makes them more likely to speak out and insert themselves, and perform at a higher level when they go back into the organization.”

Milkint says authenticity matters. “When we can bring out our full self, we have a deeper, more memorable, more personal experience,” Milkint says. “I identify as a white woman, but I’m half Hispanic — my mother is Spanish and Mexican. I have only just felt comfortable coming and sharing that part of my life and that story in this stage of my life. There are a lot of women and men like me who may identify one way and then be seen through another whole light. I think that this is the beauty and magic of this moment, that we’re all finding, myself included, our personal courage to tell our story. When I tell that story, it changes how I’m seen on that stage or on that screen, I’m more relatable.”

The pandemic has challenged how meetings and events are conducted, and DEI initiatives may not feel like the top priority as the industry emerges from its cocoon. But Williams argues that the disruption provides exactly the reason to incorporate DEI into the conference setting. “This is a groundbreaking time for the live events industry,” Williams says. “As you rebuild, this actually is an ideal time to interweave diversity principles into your business, because this way diversity will become integral to your organization.”  I&FMM

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