Monday 24 May 2021 6:00 am ICAS Talk

Sheree Atcheson: Allies and analytics

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Lysanne Currie is CEO and Editor in Chief of Meet the Leader. She also writes for Robb Report, Diplomat, Guardian, Influence, Tempus and Investor.

Action plans and good intentions are all very well, but is your ED&I strategy truly effective? Sheree Atcheson outlines the road to successful implementation.

This article first appeared in ICAS’ CA magazine.

Writing in The Times last month, former Conservative minister, now NED at Goldman Sachs, Sam Gyimah argued ethnic diversity isn’t “woke” but rather “good business”. He pointed to stats revealed by recruitment company Green Park that for the first time in six years there were no black chairs, CEOs or finance directors in the FTSE 100. Something is not working. “Progress can occur only if corporate leaders see themselves as part of the solution,” Gyimah wrote, “recognising that it is not enough to not be racist, but actively anti-racist. That requires action, not just intention, and clear data on where we are succeeding, where we are falling short, and the outcomes we want.”

Business leaders increasingly say they want to make the world a better place and equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) are key. But where to start? How do we progress strategically rather than just firefighting or box ticking?

This month, a new book delves deep into what needs to be done to make ED&I strategies not only stick but change the status quo. Demanding More: Why Diversity and Inclusion Don’t Happen and What You Can Do About It, by Sheree Atcheson, combines insights from her own life with data and interviews with leaders to explore topics ranging from unconscious bias to allyship. Among its many glowing reviews, it’s been called “necessary reading for anyone who is alive in the 21st century” by Stemettes co-founder Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon.

Atcheson’s life story is itself inspiring. Not for nothing has she, aged just 30, been called one of the UK’s most influential women in tech. Adopted at three weeks old by a working-class Catholic couple in Northern Ireland, the Sri Lanka-born Atcheson endured racist bullying while growing up, yet went on to work in very white male environments, becoming an advocate for diversity in tech. Among other positions, she is a global diversity, equity and inclusion executive, having held senior roles at Peakon, Monzo and Deloitte, and is an advisory board member of Women Who Code, a non-profit striving to close the gender gap in Stem industries.

She calls her book “a learning experience” and too good an opportunity to pass up, penned as it was amid the pandemic and the rise of Black Lives Matter. “Quite a bit of it was already focusing on the inequities that exist for black communities globally,” she says. “BLM has existed since 2013, but we started to see more people coming together under its banner, so it’s given the book another lens.” For Atcheson, it’s crucial the momentum is now used in a positive way, “turning it into something actually sustainable and scalable”.

While she praises the likes of Ben and Jerry’s for speaking out, and says the Big Four “have been finally coming together around black inclusion”, problems remain. And, she says, with the ubiquity of social media, there’s no excuse for being unaware. Yet there’s still an issue around what she calls “the privilege of disconnecting. I recall people saying to me, ‘I can’t believe this is still happening.’ I’d say, ‘This has been going on for decades.’”

She adds: “I grew up in a very white space. You’re acutely aware of it. In the workplace there have been microaggressions: people mistaking me for other people of colour or asking where I’m really from. The work I do may be at a senior leadership level, but it means the majority of rooms I’m in are not diverse. My job is to try to hold people to account to change that.”

So, as an FD or CEO, how best to start? “The first thing is for people to understand the experience of existing outside of their own experience,” she says. “More often than not, when people start to think about diversity and inclusion, [it is] in a way that’s relevant to them. So, if we only have predominantly white men in senior leadership, and they only care about white women, that’s not very inclusive. Likewise, if we have people mostly from Russell Group universities, and they’re thinking about inclusion for people from slightly different backgrounds, but also from Russell Group universities, that’s not very inclusive either.”

Awareness takes time, she says: “That real in-depth self-awareness that asks, ‘How has life been easier or more difficult for me based on all of these different things? And why?’ You have to sit down and really think about people for whom life has been more difficult – that’s uncomfortable, but necessary. Then we can move from awareness to education to action, which has to be ingrained, in-depth and authentic.”

For allyship, it “should be about intervening, not just supporting; calling out inappropriate behaviour and taking a stand on micro and macroaggressions. We should be embedding allyship into businesses and creating appropriate policies that work for everyone.”

We should be demanding more from our leaders: “They define the strategy and vision, and middle management brings that to life. If you have senior leadership engaged, but not middle management, you have words without action; the other way around, you have some mismatch of action, but no vision.”

She highlights’ diverse businesses’ better bottom lines: “The top quartile for gender diversity outperforms competitors by 15%. For ethnic diversity, it’s 33%. So we know this makes sense. If we keep going with people we directly identify with, we create echo chambers. What’s important is we don’t just think we can take shortcuts and fix this later. It’s much harder to fix these problems when they’re embedded in company culture.”

Investment in ED&I is crucial, but what should come first? “People analytics,” Atcheson says without pause. “Many organisations roll out ED&I without having any way to check if it works or not. That means wasting time making mistakes, because you don’t know if you’re giving people what they need. With people analytics, you can really understand, serve and actively listen to your employees and use those analytics to understand protected characteristics. You can see, for example, how black men feel about diversity and inclusion in your business compared with white women. It gives you that granularity. Leaders need to understand what, how and when you need to do things, as opposed to just throwing everything at the wall and hoping it sticks.”

Demanding More by Sheree Atcheson (Kogan Page, £14.99) is out now.