The diversity of our workforce is very important to us at the RIPE NCC. It broadens our perspective as an organisation, makes us more responsive to new challenges, and improves the quality of our decision making. In this article, I explore what we can do together to stimulate and develop a more diverse and inclusive workforce.
Writing about the topic of diversity has been on my to-do list for quite a while, but after the topic was presented and discussed at the SEE 10 Meeting, I felt it was the right time to finally put my thoughts before the community. With this article, I want to talk about why a diverse workforce is important for us at the RIPE NCC and also explore what we can do together to stimulate and develop a more diverse and inclusive workforce and Internet community.
How do we define diversity?
There are flat dictionary definitions of diversity that point to the inclusion of different types of people in different contexts, but the definitions I prefer go deeper and speak to what diversity means today. One definition I like says that diversity is "about empowering people by respecting and appreciating what makes them different, in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, and national origin.” An even more exhaustive list can be found in the RIPE Code of Conduct, which reflects extremely well on both the drafters of this code as well as the community that approved it.
What to focus on?
What stands out for me personally in the above described definition of diversity is the sentence “respecting and appreciating what makes them different”. At the same time, the sentence raised another question for me - what differences are we focussing on? Are those differences above the waterline, the visible difference, or are they differences below the waterline related to norms, values, personality, drivers and resistors?
Often diversity discussions are focussed on what is visible above the waterline - for instance skin colour or gender - while for an organisation, what's below the waterline can be just as important. This discrepancy makes the discussion complicated. Are we talking about the same thing? Do we see the same challenges? What is the real “why” behind the objective to embrace a diverse workforce?
As an organisation, you can be very diverse in some ways, but not so much in others. For instance, at the RIPE NCC we have over 40 nationalities amongst our employees. That’s a lot considering the size of our organisation. So in that sense we're very diverse. Also, I dare to say we are very open towards the LGBTQI+ community in our hiring process and company culture.
At the same time, we struggle in some areas with gender balance. In our Tech teams the majority is male. When we have a vacancy on an intermediate or senior level, roughly 98% of the applicants are male. On a junior level this is more balanced, so I am hopeful for the long run. But overall, it's a real challenge to find suitable female candidates for the job. At the same time, our HR Department is 100% female. Both are definitely not by design, but related to the fact that one area attracts more males and the other area attracts more females. Having said that, we will keep focussing on bringing more diversity in both areas.
What I have recognised over the years is that the topic of diversity often comes up when it’s lacking in a certain area. So while the topic is important, it can often be that there's a lot of focus on what's missing, even when a team might well be identified as very diverse looking at it from a different context.
Also, when in a team, if all the diversity elements visible above the waterline are ticked off, it could still be that personality-wise the group is very homogeneous due to unintentionally selecting people who think and act the same way, since you often get attracted by what you recognise. Having the same personalities in one team will contribute to everyone thinking alike, which does make interaction easier. At the same time it will not lead to including different views and perspectives and will not lead to better results, because the blind spots of a homogenous team will be overlooked. And you don’t want to end up in a situation where you look very diverse from the outside, but internally everyone needs to think alike to fit in. That will lead to frustration and fear of speaking up.
The topic very often comes up when an individual or a certain group of people does not feel respected by the majority, or well represented, or properly heard, etc. In situations like that, it is important to investigate the actual problem statement. What are the facts and what are the experiences? Is it related to lack of knowledge, miscommunication, misunderstanding, misconduct, lack of a safe environment, etc? When the problem statement is more clear, you can focus on the right solution and taking the right action.
Why is diversity important?
Speaking from a business perspective, diversity is important for a whole variety of reasons. It improves the quality of our decision making. When you have people around you who think and look at things differently than you do, you gain a broader perspective as a team, and will be less likely to overlook opportunities and issues. Diverse colleagues challenge each other and help broaden each other's horizons. Also, a diverse workforce contributes in assigning tasks to the person with the required skills.
And, as a cherry on the cake, greater diversity supports people’s personal growth. We learn most from people who think and act differently than ourselves. Being open and curious to these differences forces you to think and act out of your regular comfort zone and explore new ways. From my own experience, I can share that I learned most from people different from myself, from a knowledge level and from the level of self-awareness. Despite the bumpy road, it enriched me.
Diversity is also important from a social responsibility perspective. As an organisation we are part of the larger society and for that reason itself we have the responsibility to create equal opportunities for all people, without any prejudice. This means that in a recruitment process you are open for all applicants who have a suitable skill set for the job.
What are potential challenges?
I'm a big promoter for diversity in the workplace, not as window dressing but as an integrated part of how we work and interact with each other. I want a workplace where we embrace, respect and learn from different beliefs, views and ideas.
At the same time it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. The complexity is that diversity comes with differences and differences can lead to misunderstandings, miscommunication and eventually to trust issues. It can lead to lengthy discussions and even frustrations, because all the different views need to be heard and acknowledged.
The bigger the differences between people, the more important it is to invest in understanding each other, to be curious and open to share thoughts and experiences and acknowledge that your personal view is not necessarily the truth. This openness requires a healthy and constructive feedback culture and trust in each other's intentions. These are things you can not demand from people, you need to invest time to increase knowledge, create awareness, coach and promote inclusive behaviour. At the same time, you need to make sure that as an organisation you have boundaries in place related to company norms and values related to accepted behaviour in the workplace. This needs to be supported throughout the whole organisation, from top to bottom.
Is it easy? No! But when you create an environment where you can openly discuss the struggles and find a solution together, I can assure you that it’s worth all the effort.
What about equal treatment?
Make sure you act by the principle of equal treatment when you promote diversity; the principle of equal treatment establishes that all people – and in the context of the workplace, all workers – have the right to receive the same treatment and not to be discriminated against on the basis of criteria such as age, disability, nationality, race and religion.
In practice, this means that as an organisation you need to have transparent and understandable policies in place that facilitate and support this, which you need to live by as an organisation. Leadership needs to lead by example. It is recommended to frequently measure if theory and practice are matching and report on that towards the organisation. Make sure you are transparent on where you are doing well and where you need to improve. It’s ok to not be perfect as long as you are open about it and commit to addressing it.
We all have prejudices. The question is how do you act on it? Do you see your bias/prejudice as an assumption that should be checked or do you see it as a fact?
Everything that we see and think of as a norm is based on something that has been there for a long time. The norm is once set by someone and from that perspective we’ve continued to build. When you go for diversity, you need to be willing to challenge these norms and biases and you need to be open to step out of your personal comfort zone.
Diversity will only be successful when you open yourself up and embrace and respect the differences. It’s important to focus on the positive impact and accept and respect the complexity that comes with it.
Advertise on diversity?
When advertising diversity as a trademark for your organisation, make sure you can live up to that in practice. Otherwise it will backfire. Also, make sure you include the wide spectrum that diversity entails. As soon as you forget one group, it could be interpreted as exclusion of that group.
What you could do when advertising, instead of literally naming the different groups, is to include a good mix of hard and soft skills in the vacancy, share something about the team dynamic to attract candidates who are sensitive for that, and also give insight on the different and diverse benefits and flexibilities of the job. You can play with language. Certain words are more appealing for instance to women than men and the other way around. This will help in attracting a diverse mix of candidates.
For the final selection, my advice is that the main focus is finding the right skills and person for the job. What are must-have skills and personality (below the waterline in the iceberg image above). Every additional aspect that contributes to diversity visible above the waterline is a big plus.
My personal conclusion here is that, for any organisation, identifying, describing and communicating the context and purpose of diversity and inclusion is important to make sure everyone involved looks at it from the same context. From there you can enhance employee’s knowledge and engagement around diversity and promote inclusive behaviour.
Avoid using diversity as window dressing because that will lead to disappointment and frustration. Focus on integrating it in your company DNA and behaviour, both internally and externally.
When you make diversity and inclusion part of your workforce strategy, make sure you’re able to answer the following questions;
- Why do you think a diverse workforce is important for your organisation?
- Make a distinction on which part is necessary for achieving objectives and which part is related to social organisational responsibility.
- Which topics within diversity do you want to focus on as improvement below the waterline?
- Which topics within diversity do you want to focus on as improvement above the waterline?
- Are you willing to set hard targets as a must or is the focus on “nice to have in place”?
- How can you ensure that the complexity of diversity is embraced within the organisation?
- How will you focus on creating awareness, enhancing inclusive behaviour and supporting staff with the challenges in interaction? Implement sufficient feedback mechanisms to stimulate communication.
- Do you have a Code of Conduct and documented processes in place?
- What are suitable metrics to implement to track progress?
- How can you create an atmosphere where successes are celebrated and experiences are shared?
In some of these areas, we are doing well at the RIPE NCC. And in others we still have a lot of work to do. But diversity and inclusion really should be a continual area of focus for organisations, and I am happy to see that we are making progress in these areas.
Last but not least
In my previous job I once was asked why we were not advertising more on the fact that we had so many different nationalities working for the organisation. My answer was borrowed from my boss at the time: “when we advertise it, it will make it sound as if it's something extraordinary, while for us as an organisation it’s normal that we are open for all cultures and treat everyone equally”. The reason why I like that answer is because it relates to a desired outcome where respecting and appreciating each other in what makes us different is the norm. When all of us do that without any exception, we don’t need to raise the topic as a problem anymore, because it’s normal, and it’s integrated in who we are and how we act, treat and behave towards each other.