Seema Lakhani is the head of product and head of Wattpad Labs at Wattpad.
The case for diversity in the workplace is clear. We all know that improved diversity, which includes more marginalized groups, particularly at senior levels, leads to better business results and, frankly, a better world.
How we get there is a tough challenge and much less understood. The reasons we have such disparity are complex and systemic. Those who best understand these challenges are often the ones that face them personally. And as such, they are less likely to be in positions of power to make change possible.
Last month, a new diversity initiative in Canada launched called #WeNeedBoth. It asked women to sign a pledge stating that when invited to sit on a panel about gender, they will ask organizers to ensure there's at least one male representative on the panel as well. It asked men to "commit to engaging" by raising their hand to say they're willing and eager to join the discussion on gender diversity and advancement.
Not surprisingly, the message did not resonate with many in Canada's business community. Though well intentioned, this initiative placed the burden on a marginalized group – women – to be willing to remove themselves from speaking on panels that do not include men, potentially reducing the already limited opportunities women have to share their voices and perspectives.
Getting men more involved in diversity initiatives is certainly worthwhile. I encourage men, particularly those in leadership positions, to take on a bigger role. So how should they do that?
Founded by two immigrant people of colour, Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen, Wattpad is a global entertainment company based in Toronto with more than 65 million users around the world and nearly 130 employees. As a woman of colour and a senior leader at Wattpad, I am seeing firsthand how creating a culture of inclusiveness is foundational to building diverse teams. I am working with an amazing team to develop initiatives that empower women, people of colour and other minority groups. These initiatives have begun to result in material outcomes, including an industry-leading all-women product team. I'll share what I've seen work.
Listen: Those with power and privilege often have a disproportionate share of the voice and don't realize it. They are used to being leaders and experts. But on topics of diversity and inclusion, they are usually not experts. This is humbling, and incredibly important. Listening to other perspectives is a key part of understanding issues and being more aware of how to make things better. It's also an important trait for any business leader.
At Wattpad, we ran a diversity and inclusion survey and then followed up with interviews and focus groups covering topics such as opportunities for progression, representation, voice and authenticity. We learned that marginalized people experience workplaces differently than other groups. These insights allowed us to uncover, and focus our energy on, the concerns of those facing challenges.
Importantly, our diversity and inclusion committee is made up of people from diverse backgrounds from across the company, including men. As a group that has historically maintained the most privilege, men add value through listening, raising up other voices, learning from others' experiences and holding themselves accountable to the group and the company. They show their commitment by giving space and deferring to underrepresented minorities.
Raise up marginalized voices, but don't make it about you: People with power and privilege often have the spotlight. If you are one of these people, make sure you pass opportunities, including the chance to speak on panels, to marginalized people around you who are doing the hard work to produce change. Retweet their thoughtful tweets on the topic. Ask them about their ideas and give them space on panels, in meetings and on social media to expand on them.
Educate yourself: It's common sense that people who aren't medical experts shouldn't give medical advice. Likewise, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, it's important to educate yourself on the topic before advising on the issue. A great way to do this is to attend conferences and diversity panels that include marginalized groups. Or read some of the excellent books and online resources by marginalized people that outline their struggles and experiences. Just remember that this is something you must do yourself. We cannot expect the marginalized people around us to take on the role of educators and be our sole source of enlightenment.
Hold yourself accountable: As a business leader, if you're serious about diversity and inclusion, you need to make sure you actually commit to it. Treat diversity and inclusion as any other part of your business. At Wattpad, we have chief executive support, we've set clear goals, allocated a budget, built a strategic road map and are ultimately held accountable.
As a global entertainment company, building a team made up of different experiences and perspectives makes both our company and our product stronger. We're proud of the diversity we have achieved, with women making up half our company. Sixty-two per cent of our leadership team are persons of colour, and nearly half (41 per cent) of our leadership team identifies as female. We are committed, but we also know there's work to do. Diversity is about much more than numbers. It's about building a great, inclusive company culture that leads to building better businesses and, ultimately, a better world.
Since the launch of #WeNeedBoth, the initiative has acknowledged some of its shortcomings by modifying its request to include a pledge for all genders, and noting the need to create more inclusive language for diverse gender identities, including those who are non-binary, agender and transgender.
Everyone needs to be part of this change. However, it is important for people in positions of power to recognize that their best intentions should not come at the expense of the marginalized.