The role of skills for Diversity and Inclusion professionals
In this conversation, we tap into the expertise of Barbara De Micheli, Head of the Social Justice Department at the Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini. With her 20+ years of experience in policy-making, implementation and innovation, she is the go-to person for many when it comes to workplace gender equality, inclusion or social justice. We sit down with Barbara to talk about our new joint initiative, to be launched in October 2021, an EU-level online course on Diversity and Inclusion: IncludEU.
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.