December 2018
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Diversity Without Inclusion Is a Missed Opportunity

Monday, December 3, 2018
Diversity Without Inclusion Is a Missed Opportunity

IBM Watson's VP of HR explains how the company is breaking barriers to inclusion.

A diverse and inclusive workforce is integral to the fabric of a company's culture and client success. Diversity and inclusion (D&I) are not simply policies and programs but business imperatives that transcend culture, practices, and purpose. The lens through which organizations view diversity is not solely race and gender but of thought and experience.


Why is it so important for companies to embrace inclusion? At the core, D&I are good for business. Organizations need more than one perspective to anticipate client needs and create innovative solutions that affect every population.

Diverse team members with a common purpose—and who are made to feel comfortable to be themselves—deliver better results. The proof is in the data. Studies have shown that diverse teams are more creative, produce greater innovation, and, ultimately, have better outcomes. For example, a recent Cloverpop study found that decisions that diverse teams made and executed delivered 60 percent better results.

This isn't just a business imperative; it is important for society. Many populations are being underserved because people who look and sound like them are not represented in boardrooms or think tanks where products and services are developed. The opportunity exists to pave the way for inclusive innovation.

How do companies create a pipeline of employees who are diverse and inclusive? And more so, how can companies integrate tech and artificial intelligence (AI) that are free from bias to help them make better and more inclusive decisions now and for the future?

Creating an open and inclusive culture

The culture that organizations build now will have an impact on their employees, clients, and innovation for decades to come. Companies need to focus on enabling their people to bring their whole selves to work, because this drives innovation and invention. If employees leave that self at home, they will simply look different but sound alike—that's about compliance and not inclusion. Employees must be conscious about bringing their whole selves. How can people leave their authentic selves at home and be comfortable to innovate or, for that matter, be productive? It's like going to work but forgetting your smartphone or tablet—you're lost for the day.

Two approaches to creating a more inclusive culture involve the policies companies set and the practices and behaviors companies live out.

Policies define what a company wants to be. So, lean in and create future-oriented policies. At IBM, we have long-standing policies to create a flexible, family-friendly working environment, from introducing paid family leave in the 1950s to now offering benefits inclusive of LGBT employees in 50 countries. We've expanded our parental leave in the United States to 20 weeks for mothers and 12 weeks for fathers, partners, and adoptive parents to have opportunities to bond with their children.

We also wanted to help alleviate some of the logistical complications for our new working mothers, so we created the first corporate, concierge-like breast milk delivery service for mothers to ship their breast milk home during business travel.

I had the benefit of being an early user of the new parental leave program and experienced how early bonding can strengthen family ties while increasing appreciation for the organization affording the benefit. I was eager to get back to work to help the organization that afforded me as much time as I had with my family. Everyone wins.

The practices and behaviors that an employee lives and breathes say who that individual is as a person—and collectively, a company. Rich practices can include using AI to make better and more inclusive decisions or supporting employee resource groups to ensure that teams are diverse and have different perspectives. Practices like these create open and safe opportunities. Enable employees to learn from one another while feeling comfortable to share experiences and help each other grow and bring their whole selves to work. IBM has more than 50,000 employees across 51 countries who participate in employee or affinity resource groups.

Creating a diverse and inclusive workforce is an essential and strategic imperative owned by every part of the organization. Each person in the company must play a role. That's what builds culture. It's what the organization practices, lives, and breathes. This could be as simple as asking more questions for understanding, engaging instead of judging, or inviting someone different than yourself to express himself freely without critique.

Tone is set at the top. Leaders have a responsibility to recruit and hire diverse talent, as well as mentor and support diverse team members. Inclusion means a lot more than representation; it means engaging diverse talent. And it doesn't end at being a globally integrated company. While IBM oversees 366,000 employees in 170 countries—translating into myriad backgrounds—our daily task is to enable those employees to bring their perspectives to the office and help us be the best version of our collective selves. Thus, our leaders across all geographies and business units take part in Executive Diversity Councils, which are focused on improving D&I in the leadership pipeline and executive representation.

Opening the aperture to expand the talent pathway

Who we hire matters. It is important to look beyond homogeneous backgrounds within your organization and open the aperture for bringing in diverse talent. A recent Georgetown University study found the number of highly skilled jobs that do not require a bachelor's degree increased from 27 million in 1991 to 30 million today—that's 40 percent of the employed workers in the United States between age 25 and 64. By bringing in people with nontraditional backgrounds, more pathways to these types of careers can help thousands of people compete for and secure good jobs in the years to come.

How is this proactively done? When making a hiring selection, companies cannot be shortsighted in their decision making: Choose the best person for the team—not the best person for the job. For example, a hiring manager has two technically qualified candidates for an open position. One candidate is stronger from a technical perspective and has the obvious degree, while the other brings a more diverse perspective to the team with a nontraditional career background and strong, relatable skills. It is the candidate who can bring a different perspective that may be a better candidate overall. Having a renewable strategy to ensure the talent approach is consistent with the company's practices and behaviors will make the way the company develops its talent pipeline clearer.

As a 107-year-old tech company, IBM has had to continually reinvent itself. And as we've transformed, we've created initiatives that build and reinvent individual skill sets and our candidate pool. These initiatives are for people at various stages of their career—from entering the workforce and relaunching careers to growing as leaders. Jobs may not require a traditional college degree. What matters is having relevant skills, which employees can obtain through vocational training or even self-teaching. In 2017, these roles accounted for about 15 percent of IBM's new hires in the United States.

For future talent who will be entering the workforce, IBM designed an innovative educational model called P-TECH for students to earn high school diplomas and industry-recognized degrees while gaining relevant work experience in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. These schools partner with private industries and higher education institutions, with government support. We currently have 110 P-TECH schools around the world.

Last year, IBM launched several new registered and recognized apprenticeship roles with the U.S. Department of Labor. These apprenticeships provide on-the-job training in high-demand IT roles, such as software engineers for areas like cloud computing and mainframe system administrators for technologies such as blockchain, data analytics, cybersecurity, and design.

IBM also has developed programs specific for women and military veterans. Harvard Business Review reports that women in the tech industry are quitting their jobs at a staggering rate, with more than half of women in nonexecutive tech roles leaving their jobs—even those with skills in hot tech such as blockchain and AI. And the representation of women in tech declines by 50 percent from entry to mid to senior and executive levels, according to, a nonprofit social enterprise committed to increasing the representation of women technologists in the global workforce.

After observing many women exiting tech roles during the past several years, a female IBMer created a tech reentry program in 2016 for women rejoining the workforce after opting out—whether it was to care for their children or elderly relatives. The 12-week paid internship provides women training, access to tools and technologies, and work assignments on technical projects that are matched to their expertise. As an executive sponsor for this program, I have seen our interns work alongside data scientists, engineers, and business professionals to hone their expertise and focus on the next generation of software. These internships have led to full-time employment within IBM, as well as opportunities with other companies in the industry. It's been a great experience for them and us.


As for U.S. service members transitioning back to civilian life, IBM has made a concerted effort to hire military veterans and assist them and their families. We have committed to hiring 2,000 veterans in the United States by 2020.

On the leadership end of the career spectrum, we have targeted programs to develop our current and future leaders. Our Elevate program is designed to accelerate the professional growth of high-potential, midcareer IBM women globally. Participants develop leadership skills through education and experiences aligned to their career paths.

Most programs start small but then have the runway to scale for the long view. They also take time and dedication, so companies should not stop after launching a program—they should have the courage and commitment to see them through.

Integrating technology and responsible stewardship

The method for recruiting an inclusive workforce is twofold. While companies can create environments for workplace inclusivity to flourish, technology can underpin the inclusive culture. Technology is the greatest wealth engine creation and must be responsible and representative of the world we live in.

AI and digital tech are untapped opportunities to transform how businesses do this, starting with recruiting a diverse workforce now and for the future. IBM receives more than 7,000 applications for key positions each day. The ability to make the right hiring decision without analytics and AI's predictive abilities is limited and has the potential to create unconscious bias in hiring. In a world where data grow exponentially, businesses need AI to help them make better decisions.

There is a potential for biased technology. While AI is becoming more integrated—from the games individuals play to the cars they drive and the products they use daily—bias can be built into the AI that everyone uses. To have ethical and unbiased technology, companies need diversity of thought and culture in the people who build and program the technology. There are consequences of having only one type of person or profile creating technology. If companies want to develop socially responsible tech, diverse teams must be in place to create, design, and deploy it.

IBM recently ran the first-ever hackathon for students from historically black colleges and universities to create new cognitive apps. For many of these students, it was the first time they were exposed to such technologies as AI, blockchain, and chatbots. It was inspiring to see the students create apps that were related to their own communities—ones that may have been otherwise underserved or completely missed.

Companies should not miss the opportunity to deploy inclusive AI. IBM is integrating its own AI into such areas as recruitment to balance out bias in the process and ensure we are bringing in the best people for our team. Just as IBM's AI technology can suggest pairing cayenne pepper to bananas based on their chemical makeup, it can detect individuals who may not have been obvious choices to enhance our team.

The right direction

Diversity is more than representation. Diversity with inclusion is a conscious choice and a deliberate effort to enable employees to bring their whole selves to work. There is still work to be done, but every step in the right direction gets us closer to shifting mindsets and transforming progress as the new normal. When we get it right, we can build an irresistible and highly engaged workforce passionate about delivering solutions for clients. That's well worth the investment.

Deploying Inclusive AI

IBM's Watson Candidate Assist uses artificial intelligence to review candidates' resumes. Candidates upload their resumes or engage with the IBM Watson chatbot about skills and interest. Watson then suggests a job that candidates may not have been considering. The results? Today, candidates apply for jobs at IBM three times more often than on other career sites. In addition, IBM is seeing greater "stickiness"—people following through with the application process. This has led to more inclusive hiring decisions. A manager may have found five strong resumes but overlooked others because the individuals did not have the obvious skills or background.

About the Author

Obed Louissaint is vice president of human
resources for IBM Watson, cognitive solutions,
and research.

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