In this episode, we speak to Barbara De Micheli. If you would like to know more about IncludEU visit its official page here. Below is the excerpt from the conversation, edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the podcast, either via the player above or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcast.
Agnes Uhereczky: Welcome, everybody. Today, my guest here is Barbara De Micheli. Thank you very much, Barbara, for joining, I am looking forward to our conversation.
Barbara De Micheli: Thank you, Agnes, for the invitation. I'm very happy to be here.
Agnes Uhereczky: Maybe I'll just introduce you quickly, Barbara, if you would like to then add something please feel free to do so. Barbara is the Head of the Social Justice Department at the Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini, which is based in Italy but is working internationally, especially at the European level. You have designed the Master in Gender Equality and Diversity Management, that you started coordinating in 2012. So we will be speaking a little bit about all these, as well as the 11th or 12th additions of the Master. You're a senior researcher and project manager. You have over 20 years of experience in the workplace in gender equality, inclusion, social justice, very relevant and very interesting topics. So maybe tell our audience or listeners a little bit more about Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini and your role and where do you see your role heading.
Barbara De Micheli: Yes, thank you. Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini is a research center. It has existed since 1971. It started with the studies on industrialization and how work organizations are evolving. It continued in the last few years with a stronger focus on social inclusion, gender equality, and more recently, diversity and inclusion. It works on different kinds of innovation in how work evolves. We have our main seat in Rome, but we also have a seat in Brussels. We mainly work as a research services provider to different agencies of the European Commission, like the Fundamental Rights Agency or Eurofound, and also for the Director Generals of the European Commission. So we do research and a lot of directives of legislative papers have been based on Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini. In this context, I coordinate these social justice units, whose focus is mainly on gender equality, social inclusion and industrialization. We are a team of 10 people. We do either research, training and also a little bit of consulting activities with organizations and companies.
Agnes Uhereczky: I also have to say for the benefit of the audience, but also just to reiterate that we, the WorkLife HUB, have been cooperating with the Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini and I think there's a great synergy between our organizations, not at all in a competitive spirit but very complimentary. It has always been a pleasure and an honour to be working with you, Barbara, and your team. And maybe we'll talk a little bit later on what we are cooperating on now. But before we do that, I would like to tap into your expertise on diversity and inclusion, specifically, both in your capacity as a researcher, as a consultant, but also as the coordinator of the Master in Diversity and Inclusion that you've been organizing since 2012. So what do you see? What are the most pressing, diversity and inclusion issues that organizations have to face now and deal with currently?
Barbara De Micheli: Well, the first thing to say is that when we started in 2012, diversity and inclusion or diversity management, as we used to say, was like a nice thing to have something on top, but companies did not consider it as a main important issue or something strategic to be implemented. Now, it's something that companies consider strategic, and this is the reason why there is growing attention towards gender towards diversity and inclusion in all these forms. We have a strong experience with gender equality. And I think there is still a need to work on gender equality, although a lot has been done on this. Most of the companies have programs, mentoring initiatives, some of them have been bought out but still, it's a big issue and it's not solved. We have been working very recently on a study on the gender pay gap, transparency directive, and the numbers, the figures that come up are quite shocking. Also, the European Commission has been working on gender equality since the late 70s. So gender equality is still a priority. For LGBT people in companies, their well-being in the company is very important. Also, the relation between different generations is crucial. And I also think from the perspective of some countries, like for instance, Italy, what we call multicultural or even racial integration is something that is going to explode in the next year. And then, of course, there is the issue of disability, which is changing completely in its perspective. We recently had a teacher in our master class who said, if we are lucky, we are all going to become people with some kind of disabilities. So disability is not a condition given from birth, but it's something that all of us are going to experience, at least the lucky ones that are going to live very long. So all these are very important. But I think that one of the most important things is that the approach to all of these needs to be more integrated. So of course, all of these dimensions have specificities and require a specific way to be dealt with. But at the same time, most innovative companies are those that have a strategic and holistic approach to inclusion. So to change the workplace to make it an inclusive space for everyone. Giving the possibility to each of us to express his or her diversities.
Agnes Uhereczky: I liked how you framed it in going from the nice to have to the must-have and the strategic aspect. I think early on, organizations tried to tick the box of diversity hiring or just putting in place some initiatives. Based on research, we can see that some of these initiatives haven't brought out the potential of diversity and inclusion that was the reason why they were already put in place. So it's not just diversity and inclusion policies or initiatives for the sake of diversity. But it's to contribute to innovation to create more creativity, retention, thinking outside of the box, and thinking with the eyes of the customers. So this potential has to be exploited. And I think that's why it's so important, what you say framing it in this strategic way.
Barbara De Micheli: According to what you are saying, for instance, studies underscore how a very important element for creativity and innovation is what they call informational diversity. So people according to their different backgrounds bring different information and ways of seeing things to the group. This is very powerful, it might be a little bit more difficult to manage groups that are not uniform that have differences, you have to acquire skills to do so. But at the same time, the potential as you were saying is much higher, not only because you have different information in the room, but also because everyone makes higher efforts to make his or her thoughts more understandable for the group because they are aware, they are not speaking to people that share their same background. This is an exercise that empowers the possibility of the group to reach some kind of results.
Agnes Uhereczky: And always take the work of the organization to the next level. So of course, Barbara, we cannot ignore that we're recording this conversation in May 2021, hopefully at the tail end of the pandemic, but we're not out of the woods yet. In the meantime, some researchers have already looked at the impact of the pandemic on areas such as the achievement of gender equality policies and initiatives and the role of women, but also more equal caring or sharing between men and women and other workplace initiatives. Also, yesterday was the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd, ever since the racial justice movement, for example, Black Lives Matter, has gained lots of attention. So a lot is going on in the world now. I just wanted to ask your take about how you think some of these current events are impacting D&I in organizations? Will they amplify perhaps the need for better and more effective D&I management? Will this increase the appetite for diversity and inclusion initiatives in organizations? What is your feeling? What do you think of this?
Barbara De Micheli: I think that as you were saying, there are a lot of inputs from the outside world and that circulate very quickly due also to social media. Also, something that happens far away from us can impact what is going on in our company. And so some existences to defend rights, to be more equitable, are very strong, and you cannot ignore them. Companies are asked to do so at the same time, the pandemic has changed strongly the way we are working. I mean, for those of us who have luckily maintained the work, because there are also a lot of people that lost it. Work is not as it was before everything is very different. I think that managers all over the world are struggling to find a way to deal with teams that are I breed in the sense that partly work from home, partly work from the office, and are made of people with very different existences.
So, I think that yes, there will be a stronger need for diversity and inclusion practices.
Because the risk is that you lose people, because not everyone is reacting at the same time, the same way towards the change that the pandemic is bringing, it's a matter of means, in general. So now everyone has the same means. But it's also a matter of I don't like the word “resilience” but at the same time, it's a matter of how much resilience you have in dealing with new things. Also, I think that's a reflection on the fact that one size of the leadership of management doesn't fit all, but you need to take into account that the people are different because they have different gender roles. They have different environments in which they live that need to be taken up. During the pandemic, we all came very familiarly with our colleagues’ houses. We didn't know where they were living in some cases. You could see that the context where people live is very different. This was also true for people's availability to have a dedicated space to work calmly and isolation from other things going around. So I think that this is a reflection that needs to be done. Not everyone is the same. Not everyone has the same access to resources. The pandemic is enhancing these differences among people now, and I think that we will all be asked to take action towards this.
Agnes Uhereczky: I like what you summarized here. I think for me, it can be summarized in one world which is vulnerability. Somehow this idea of worker outfit that we all used to put on, when we went to the office, it was much easier to pretend to be the kind of worker our employer wanted us to be. When it was all Zoom and Microsoft Teams and you could see everything. It was a different story. I think probably that's what we needed in becoming more aware of our differences, becoming more aware of our vulnerabilities to focus even more on the inclusion and belonging and the empathy part and not just checking the boxes.
Barbara De Micheli: What happens when you are obliged - because the working environment is not inclusive - to hide some part of you? This is something that in the long-run has a very negative effect on your well-being, but also the organization because you are not participating as you are, but you are always using a lot of energy to pretend to be someone else. And when you are working under the stress of a pandemic, this might be too much. So I think that this is the reason why there is all this focus on inclusive leadership on ways to make the environment where you work more inclusive, more fitting to individual existences. Also, the pandemic has shown that it is possible to work remotely, it's not needed to go to work, I mean, in a physical office every day. But this needs to be balanced with the other individual exigencies. This has to do with diversity and inclusion because individual experiences are not all the same. This needs to be pushed much more in terms of action. So initiatives, and also in terms of way of thinking language, way of relating to other colleagues. So that's why I was talking about the systemic approach now, because you need to reshape, in a way, the way of thinking to welcome not only on paper, but in the concrete, daily life, what's going on, and to make some behaviour possible.
Agnes Uhereczky: I could draw a parallel here. It's like the same awakening I think that has happened around wellbeing at work. If when wellbeing used to be just a one day a year event for organizations when they would have a salad bar, or they would have a sports activity, they understood that this needs to be embedded into everything they do if they would like to maintain the health and productivity and engagement of the employees and assisting with the D&I.
Barbara De Micheli: What we're seeing is that we are in a way in a new era. The era of communication is still very strong but companies and almost all employees asked for actions. So it's not just the diversity inclusion day, as you were saying the kids at a work event, which are nice. It's important because it gets the attention to the issue, but then it's what happens every day. To do this you need more competencies. Because when you stay at the level of just communication or a very general commitment, it can be done only based on empathy or people that are sensitive to some issues or some others. But when you need to plan a change, then you need to have some specific competencies to this.
Agnes Uhereczky: Absolutely. Now, let's talk a little bit about the Italian Master in Diversity and Inclusion and Gender Equality, that you have initiated and coordinated within the Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini in Italy since 2012. Could you please give a little bit of context to our listeners and audience in terms of the numbers of people who have been trained and the framework of the course? This is not just a one-day course, it's a long time investment and learning event for participants. What are your lessons learned in terms of how the needs of the participants have evolved and what they can get from such a course that they could use in their everyday work?
Barbara De Micheli: In terms of your first question, I designed the course, which initially for the first nine additions was a physical course over the weekend, over 10 weekends, Friday and Sunday and Saturday all day. It was combining theory from academic teachers as the Fondazione has a wide network of academics. We had a high-level theory, together with the presentation from practitioners which included consultants, the ones who go into companies and support them with the implementation of the actions. The course also included project work. From the very beginning, our students could learn about the background in an academic way, because what we noticed is that sometimes people that work as consultants lack the strong background that a lot of these themes have. They have no idea of, for instance, the movements of the past or the theoretical studies that have been done on gender equality on the definitions of disabilities or these kinds of things. We thought it is important that participants know these areas as well, that they do not come from scratch, and that they have a strong history behind them. So we decided to combine theory, practice and project work.
We decided from the very beginning to have classes in which people could bring their diversity. So we included the students, people coming from university, but also people that were working in the field, like in gender equality bodies, or the first diversity committees so that they could be together and exchange the perspective of experience with the more fresh theory. They stay together for 10 weekends, and they work together to create this project work. In the end, the project work focuses on the practical implementation of one activity that aims at bringing one of the dimensions of diversity and inclusion to life. The students met from 30 to 40 times over the length of the course with teacher testimonials and trainers. This was an opportunity for them to enlarge their network. At this stage, up to the 11th edition, which is going to be closed at the end of June 2021, we have trained 250 people, and some of these people are now in diversity and inclusion bodies in some of the most important Italian companies. So they have been trained, and now they operate.
In March 2020, we found out that we could not continue the course physically in Rome. So people from all parts of Italy came and stayed over the weekend, and stayed together and had this opportunity to dedicate the weekend to diversity and inclusion. In March 2020, it was not possible anymore. Therefore, we decided to go online. So the 10th and the 11th additions are online. We tried to maintain the same structure. What we have learned from this experience is that students learn a lot from the trainers, but they learn a lot also from each other and that this formula is important because every one of us needs time to reflect. What we teach, what we share, is something that needs to become something that is part of any individual. You need to become critical to face your resistance and possibly share it with the group. Why do you agree or why do you not agree? In our teams, we had people with different perspectives. So, we also had conflicts, differences. This was very important because people learn how to listen and how to answer and how to create an inclusive place. Because of course, when you are welcoming differences, you are introducing conflict and you need to find a way to manage the conflict so that you can go the step behind. So this was very important. In addition, what we notice in these 10 years is that this is a field where words change. So we named the course 10 years ago Master in Diversity Management. Now we talk about diversity and inclusion. We talked about gender equality, now we talk about gender equity. So it's an evolution. The use of words is very important in this field, because words express the way you think. So, we think that in three months, our students, in a way, learn and share a new language as well.
Agnes Uhereczky: That's great. I love the way you framed it also, that without conflict, there is no growth. It's the same everywhere. I think that's a bit of an uncomfortable truth. That if you would like to develop your organization, if you would like to develop yourself, reflect on you, understand your own bias, and maybe be confronted with the viewpoints of others who think differently than you. Then, there is some kind of discomfort or even conflict, as you say. How you manage the conflict and how you frame the conflict as an opportunity for growth is, I think, an important aspect of this. Then that's how you can go further and further. We see this in several companies, for instance, Barilla or others who have had a crisis, because of the way things were managed but have come out of it stronger and better. Because the conflict or crisis was an opportunity to take stock and to reflect and to understand that okay, maybe we were stuck in some old ways of thinking and doing which serve us, serve our employees or clients no longer, and we need to look forward.
Barbara De Micheli: Yes, also, we think that in a way, diversity and inclusion agents are bridges, and bridges among the different groups or groups of stakeholders. So, to do this, you need to be able to find the right words to express your opinions. It is also important not to be too aggressive because when you are too aggressive with people - even if you are right, or, even if, in the defence of your rights - they react to aggression with even more resistance. So we think that this is something that is not explicitly taught in the Master's, but it's part of the experience, because people from different contexts stay together in a safe place, which is the classroom, and they learn from each other.
Agnes Uhereczky: Looking back to the lessons learned, how could you summarize some of the things that you have now understood better, and it can integrate or think, okay, now, we have understood that this is how best to train these skills and train these approaches.
Barbara De Micheli: Well, one lesson is to give students space to work together. Another solution is to also bring a critical approach. In this 11th edition, we always change the training offer, we try to stay on the path with the evolution. We also try to be a little bit critical or provocative now, because we think that this is another element to give people food for thought, and allow them to find their answers. So it's a kind of Masters where we also post questions, and people should find their answers. This is an important lesson learned. Also, we learned and we hope it will be at a certain time possible to meet again. The online version of the Master is very important because it allows a lot of people to follow it that could not have been otherwise, but it would be nice also to maintain at least a possibility for people to meet and to stay together as we used to do.
Agnes Uhereczky: I had also the privilege to come and join your Master a few times in Rome. One time I was there it was for the end of the course and the presentation of the project works. It was great to see how creative the participants were in coming up with very practical projects that they wanted to implement and organize in their organizations. It was also interesting to see the peer support and feedback culture of the course, and how important it was for them to receive critical but also constructive feedback from others.
Barbara De Micheli: Indeed, what we do in the Italian edition, we usually have the last day where we ask our students divided in the group to present the idea to an audience made of either trainers or people from companies or D&I managers. So, they collect feedback from the audience and it is very important.
Agnes Uhereczky: Now, maybe it's time for us to reveal that we together are coming out with an offer, which is a European level, an advanced training course on diversity and inclusion, to help participants learn about and implement projects to create inclusive and safe, and diverse workplaces in Europe. The idea is to take the course and your experience to a European level. Now Barbara, what are the key arguments? Why do we feel that there's a need to have such a course at the European level?
Barbara De Micheli: First, because we believe in the European project, and we think that there is a European dimension, that is still very lively, and that our diversity and inclusion managers need to consider. We think that people coming or living in different countries could learn from each other on what is going on in the countries in terms of practical ideas to manage diversity inclusion. We also have a specific request from some companies we work with because they have diversity and inclusion managers at the European or North European level. So, they would like to reflect on program actions that could be adopted in the whole area, and not just for a single country. And also, because the last answer would be that the European Union has been pushing a lot in the last year or so in the way of recognizing rights, promoting, for instance, gender equality, new ways of seeing disability, LGBT people rights. So we think that there is a European Framework of initiative legislation programs, that would be very nice to know, and very nice to learn from, to prevent actions, also at the country level.
Agnes Uhereczky: Absolutely. We see the incredible mobility of goods and capital and with the growing integration between European countries, this is an area that also has to be addressed at the European level, because there's so much richness actually in the different experiences. And it would be a shame not to use that for organizations for employers, both in the public sector and the private sector to learn from each other, breaching a little bit, the cultural or the linguistic barriers that exist, maybe between countries. I think a lot of this information cannot be found. There's a lot of research, sometimes often hidden behind paid journal articles, but there isn't a European, one place of information where you can go and understand what is this Polish, small company in the manufacturing sector doing about Roma integration, for example, or this great example from this French company that is including these people with disabilities, or that other company that is recruiting cognitive people with cognitive differences, and even people on the autism spectrum for their new job. So, I think that there's a need to have one place where you will have access to all of these rich experiences, but also lessons learned and maybe mistakes so that you can have a very European relevant experience, which is, I think, an added value compared to just the domestic or maybe a regional experience.
Barbara De Micheli: Absolutely. Europe has the word diversity in its claim. I think that diversity it's for sure, a problem for Europe, but it's also a good and big resource. I think that in a way, it is the moment to give value to the richness that comes from diversity in terms of practices in terms of ideas, and also in terms of possibilities for companies and organizations.
Agnes Uhereczky: I think it's another aspect that after the pandemic, the talent shortage, and even though it hasn't gone away, once we come out of it, it will be even more important for organizations to attract and hire and retain the right diverse talent if they would like to succeed and stay relevant. So I think we're a little bit in a fog. So this is a good time to invest in learning and exchange of experience. Because once the fog is lifted, we'll see a new reality, as you say, in terms of remote work in terms of diversity in terms of talent shortage, so we have to be ready to face this.
Barbara De Micheli: Absolutely. And also, because the most innovative companies already work with no borders in Europe. This is something that needs to be taken as value. To do this, you need to know more about what's happening in the different countries. At the same time, see what the different companies do in their context. We are aware that when it comes to diversity and inclusion, there are some legislative constraints, which are different from countries. But we think that focusing on the bigger European Framework, and the specificity of the actions in the company would be very interesting, also, because what we know about diversity and inclusion comes a lot from the US approach. But we know that there are different ways of doing it in different European countries. So it would be very important for people coming from different contexts to share and to make reflections in a place where they could also be together, define the new practice, define new strategies and confront. So I'm very curious about the final project works that would come from my European advances course and see what's come up more, that would be very interesting.
Agnes Uhereczky: Absolutely. Now, the course is going to start at the end of October on the weekend of the 22nd of October 2021. Could you please tell the listeners, Barbara, who this course is for, and what are they going to get from the 12 weeks they participate in the course?
Barbara De Micheli: Well, we thought that, as we did in the Italian edition, we would like to have a group that is not completely homogeneous. So we are thinking about HR people, but also people from top management in companies. People that want to put into practice, diversity, and inclusion and are in the position in their companies or organization to do so. The 12th weekend will be organized with a double approach. On one side, we will keep some weekends dedicated to some of the dimensions, but we will make even stronger the systemic approach. So we will try to give our students tools and methodologies to assess the diversity to their needs and to elaborate actions that could be integrated into the intersectional approach to consider all the different dimensions. We will also focus on the impact, how to measure or how to collect information and data for the impact. And, we will also keep this approach that we had in the Italian edition to combine theory. So academic theory with consultants experience and with the part dedicated to project work.
Agnes Uhereczky: I think one of the strengths of this course is also the combined network of the funded unit, the Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini and the WorkLife HUB, and the kind of guest lectures and companies we will be able to invite. They are often household names or smaller organizations and companies that you wouldn't find on the internet. These organizations have pioneered or developed some very outstanding practices that they would like to share and explain how they have conquered these challenges, how they have implemented them. I don't know about you, but sometimes I think this has changed in the past years.
Before it was always Google and Facebook, always the same companies who were invited to speak about these issues. Maybe this was part of a PR type of work. We know that European economies make up 99% of small and medium-sized companies, and also lots of even smaller micro-companies. So one of the focuses is definitely to try to give realistic examples, and accessible examples for people, future D&I managers, and future D&I champions who are working not in one of the top fortune 500 companies in Europe, or the biggest companies listed on the European Stock Exchange, but regional organizations. They still do have a very strong drive and interest in creating inclusive and safe and diverse workplaces.
Barbara De Micheli: This is one of the elements. The other is to acquire or transfer to the participants of the Master planning skills for them to be able to make diversity and inclusion plans, and to be strategic about that because something that is lacking is to have a comprehensive view. One view is that we are doing diversity and inclusion initiatives to make our employees feel better. So it's not just diversity and inclusion for the purpose of diversity inclusion, but as you were saying before, to have a better environment and a better place for everyone. So on this, you are right, there are companies doing very interesting things. They have pioneered. They need to be supported to communicate, express, put together the dots and make a plan. On the other side, bigger companies sometimes need to be more active in collecting data, measuring impact, and seeing if the initiatives that they are doing are really bringing the company towards a more inclusive environment.
Agnes Uhereczky: Yes, and harnessing the potential of diversity in itself. Now, before we go to the last question, would you like to tell our listeners where they can find out more about Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini? But also, of course, is there a website they can go to?
Barbara De Micheli: We have a website, which is www.master.gdm.it. In there, you'll find the session, which is called IncludEU. So that section provides more information about the European advanced course, but the first part of the website is still Italian but all the information related to this new training activity is in English. If you are interested, you can already reach out to us but most of the information is already there. But if there is something that we forgot to mention, you can drop an email to us and we can answer you.
Agnes Uhereczky: That's great. Thank you. Now coming to the last question of our conversation, Barbara, if I could ask you based on the wealth of experience that you have, but just to distil it and give one piece of advice to future D&I leaders on how they can build inclusive and safe and diverse workplaces. What would be your key advice, the most important thing you would like to highlight?
Barbara De Micheli: Well, first to collect information about your people, collect data, listen to people's needs, ask them, and do not plan initiatives without listening to them. So co-create initiatives that include people that you are trying to make an inclusive workplace for. If I had to say just one thing, don't take things for granted, because everyone has his or her own biases, stereotypes, and sometimes listening to what people say, even if you may don't like what you hear, could be a starting point for change.