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Diversity is more than a box-ticking exercise

Evidence shows initiatives drive better outcomes but need to be considered carefully to maximise potential

Skills diversity within teams leads to more productive and better decisions, but it also raises practical issues. Photograph: Getty Images

Skills diversity within teams leads to more productive and better decisions, but it also raises practical issues. Photograph: Getty Images


There probably isn’t an organisation which doesn’t have workplace diversity goals and agendas by now. Companies are not investing in diversity initiatives altruistically: there is mounting evidence that diverse teams produce better outcomes, profit and growth. Diversity can inspire companies and increase profits, according to a 2017 McKinsey report.

The same report noted that in the United Kingdom, for every 10 per cent increase in gender diversity, EBIT (earnings before interest and taxes) rose by 3.5. As Alison Cowzer, chair of Women for Election, puts it, “Better diversity at the decision-making table ensures better decisions, and better outcomes for the country – that is why we need to change.”

In the latest episode of the Inside Marketing podcast we talk to Carolyn Odgers, business director at Carat Ireland, Alison Cowzer co-founder of East Coast Bakehouse and Gerard O'Neill chairman of Amarach Research, about diversity in business - both visible and invisible - and the opportunity and benefits of investing in a diverse workforce. Listen now: 

Human nature means that we find it easier to focus diversity on the things we can see. A company is deemed to be diverse when all human differences are well represented within it, so while rightly ensuring that companies, for example, employ more people from ethnic minorities, have more women at senior level, and are open to employing people from all sexual orientations and being age neutral, what are we doing about the invisible diversities? Those with the innate skills and capabilities that people have, and indeed their life experiences which also contribute massively to their abilities within the workplace?

Practical issues

Skills diversity within teams leads to more productive and better decisions, but it also raises practical issues. People approaching things differently can raise conflict levels, but maybe that needs to be built in to how we do work. 

Diverse juries deliberate more perspectives more accurately than homogenous ones (Sommers 2006). How many times have we sat in rooms “brainstorming” and realised that we are probably not representative of the target audience we are talking about and we are all basically cut from the same cloth, and are essentially carrying out an exercise in confirmation bias.

Let’s embrace difference in all its guises and help everyone to work better by being better prepared to deal with their increasingly diverse clients’ needs

Back in the noughties, there was more time and money for psychometric testing within teams, to see how we could harness the different characteristics and hidden skills of individuals, and to better understand how to work more productively within teams. 

While this didn’t necessarily clarify the hard skills people had, it certainly laid bare the softer skills, or lack thereof. With tighter budgets and time poverty, much less of this is done now, and I suggest this is to the detriment of diversity within workplaces. 

Along with other sectors, the marketing and advertising industry is trying its very best to be diverse – and is indeed very open to ensuring that it is representative of the visible difference. But when it comes to the skills within that diversity, we are on the whole still programmed to replace like with like – and because recruitment is so hard, we are permanently trying to fill gaps rather than stepping back and looking at the bigger picture and the make-up of teams. I stress that I am generalising here. 

So, for example, why do entry level people always have to be young or recent graduates. Why don’t we look at returners – people who may have stepped away from the workplace for a myriad of reasons and now want to return,  not necessarily in a highly demanding role, but something that keeps them busy and in which they could do an exceptional job.

If they are not worried about being older than their peers why should we be? The experience they bring could be hugely helpful to their other team members. 

In the context of a tech revolution where projects are often multi-layered and require deep skills across many and varying knowledge sets, managing, inspiring and building cohesive and productive teams is imperative. Combining the specialist, deep skills and generalist leadership skills ensures maximising the ability to solve complex problems. Often the leadership skills needed to lead these complex projects require experience and maturity 


As Gerard O’Neill, chairman of Amarach Research, says, “When we talk about someone being ‘mature’, what do we mean? Most people would say maturity has something to do with experience and maybe even wisdom. And they are right. If experience is ‘simply the name we give to our mistakes’ (Oscar Wilde), then wisdom is the ability to avoid mistakes. 

“Framed more positively, someone who is mature is better at ‘pattern matching’, in other words, they have learned (sometimes the hard way) what combination of choices and behaviours are more conducive to success. So, having a few mature people around is a form of risk mitigation: or if you prefer, an insurance policy against stupidity.”

Of course, within this industry there needs to be specialists in traditional skills as well as more tech advanced skills, but, for example, does everyone on a media team need to have in-depth media knowledge, or everyone within a creative agency the ability to write amazing copy? 

It is as important that someone on the team has good interpersonal skills, someone on the team is a great innovator, someone is a digital maven and there is someone who can strategically guide the project, and that they all can help other team members understand these skills better. Make the role fit the skills, not the other way round

Ensuring a diverse workplace, and diverse teams within that, is not easy. Although 85 per cent of employers say that diversity is important, only 46 per cent have programmes in place to attract diverse talent – and many say that their recruitment tools are ineffective in helping them succeed, according to a 2017 report from Robert Walters.

Carolyn Odgers is business director at Carat Ireland
Carolyn Odgers, business director at Carat Ireland

As already mentioned, recruitment is very tough in this industry – and never more so than in a pandemic – but if we broaden our horizons and look for more diverse skills within a more visibly diverse workplace, it might just become easier to get great people into our workplaces. We will need to change the way we recruit and broaden the areas we recruit from. 

True diversity in the workplace is more than an ethical issue. Companies need to grasp the opportunities that true diversity – not just what you can see but what lies beneath – can bring. Let’s embrace difference in all its guises and help everyone to work better by being better prepared to deal with their increasingly diverse clients’ needs. 

Carolyn Odgers is business director at Carat Ireland. 

Inside Marketing is a series brought to you by Dentsu and Irish Times Media Solutions, exploring the issues and opportunities facing the world of media and marketing.
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