How can straight white men be real diversity champions?

Campaign deputy editor Gemma Charles interviews Suki Sandhu for the tenth Zone Book Club, hosted by Zone and Campaign, in partnership with Penguin Business.

How can straight white men be real diversity champions?

“Diversity and inclusion is such a complex topic,” says Suki Sandhu, a leader in executive search and talent development and an expert in D&I.

Important and complex? That’s a prime topic for discussion at the Zone Book Club - and at the core of Sandhu’s latest book: How to Get Your Act Together — A Judgement-free Guide to Diversity and Inclusion for Straight White Men.

“Over the years, a lot of straight white men have been hit over the head with [D&I]” Sandhu says, explaining the insights that led him to write the book. “They feel they’ve been blamed for the lack of progress. We wanted to create a book that was judgement free, something that gave them the ‘how’ to tackle the different topics in diversity and inclusion. Because there isn’t a silver bullet that fixes everything.”

Each chapter deals with a different aspect of creating successful policies and cultures for promoting D&I: the first  takes a detailed look at the opportunity presented by diversity, the second takes as its theme conscious inclusion — and so on. 

“A lot of people just don’t know what they are supposed to do. In the diversity and inclusion sector, we use terminology and language that we assume everyone understands,” Sandhu admits. “Even the term ‘privilege’: we assume everyone knows what it is and, if I am honest, it’s often used in a bit of a derogatory way. White people don’t like to be reminded of white privilege. So we have to break it down and see what it means, so people can understand it.”

Talking of his personal experiences and how they shaped the book, Sandhu recalls his upbringing. “I’m originally from Derby, in the Midlands. I’m Indian. I’m Sikh. I’m working class. I’m gay. I know what it feels like to be in the closet. And I know what it feels like to be able to be open and honest about who you are. With my LGBT+ status, I have to tell people about that if I want them to know about it. But my race, I couldn’t hide even if I wanted to. So, there are very different challenges in different areas of diversity. But we can help people by building empathy and showing them what those challenges are.”

While he has a personal passion for the subject of diversity, Sandhu explains that the book draws more heavily on the experiences and challenges of the senior executives with whom he has worked over the years. “We meet CEOs all the time and hear about their challenges in getting diversity right. We want to get over a sense of what people can do that really works.”

On gender, Sandhu has a sobering message. “Progress is really slow. Take the FTSE 100 for example, I think those companies only reached 30%  boardroom representation a year or two ago. That was celebrated as a big milestone. But remember, the world is 50% women. So, well done that we’ve got thirty percent. But shouldn’t we be going for parity?”

He also has a warning against thinking the job is done. Sometimes, he warns, once they have hit a target, companies tend to take their foot off the accelerator. “We did research a few years ago that showed that if some of the women appointed during the drive to 30% didn’t renew their terms, and there wasn’t a focus on gender diversity, very quickly the percentage of women on the board could fall back to around 17%”

Sandhu’s view of the ad industry? “You have a lot of straight white men at the top in advertising, that’s like any industry, but with advertising and marketing specifically, where you’re helping your clients reach consumers through their brands, it’s even more important that you reflect the communities you serve. Because you’re creating the ideas that are supposed to engage people to buy those products. And we’ve all seen examples of campaigns in the past that have got it wrong.”

He is clear on the business value of diversity to the ad industry. “When you’re going on pitches to big brands, they don’t want to see an all straight, white, male team. They’re being more demanding in their RFPs to get the diversity data. So commercially, it just makes sense for you to be more inclusive.”

To find out how you can be a positive part of making change happen, order How to Get Your Act Together — A Judgement-free Guide to Diversity and Inclusion for Straight White Men here. To hear Sandhu and Charles in conversation, catch up on the full Book Club discussion here.    

Zone, a Cognizant Digital Business, created its Book Club series to champion innovation, diversity and creativity in the technology industry, with a specific aim to inspire, educate and inform. 


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