Diversity isn’t just about equality. It’s how to drive real innovation


Source: City of Melbourne, That Startup Show/ Wren Steiner.

I’m tired of hearing leader after leader waxing poetic about “embracing diversity” and “creating an inclusive space” when what they really care about is optics. It sounds less PR-friendly if they say what they mean, which is: “I like the way things are, but if we don’t break up the sea of similar-looking faces on our company LinkedIn page, we’re going to catch a lot of flak”.

This homage to the status quo is harmful, and not only to talented people who aren’t given a seat at the table. It’s also harmful to the business itself.

Why? Because diversity is how to drive real innovation.

Let’s be clear: it’s impossible for me to speak to the experience of many of the marginalised communities who are the (frequently tokenised) subjects of diversity discussions. But I can speak to my experience as a woman in the workspace, at every level from entry to CEO. I can speak to my experience as someone who is very often the youngest in the board room. I can speak to my experience as a woman in tech, a very male-dominated field.

And I can speak to my experience sitting in the C-suite for some of the world’s best-known companies, watching what happens when diversity is — and isn’t — considered a true value proposition.

Diversity is a strategic issue

Diversity is so often considered in the context of HR, not in the context of business strategy. And yet, diversity is a direct path to better innovation and better business outcomes. It’s not simply an HR issue. It’s a strategic issue — and absolutely a leadership issue.

To put it plainly, diverse teams make better decisions. That has certainly been my experience and is my firmly held belief, but you don’t have to take my word for it. McKinsey found companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. 

Of course, people ask, is this relationship between success and gender diversity causation or correlation? My response: I don’t care! If that success is attributable to being forward-thinking in other areas of your business in addition to being more gender-diverse, that’s fantastic, too. You’re signaling to the world that you’re leaning forward and it’s working.

Not everyone got the memo about gender diversity and success, apparently. And tech companies typically aren’t performing well in this area. The statistics on diversity in tech are dire, but even when tech organisations acknowledge the issue, there’s clear inertia around taking action. Again, that’s a leadership issue. Not all of the inaction stems from the brazen discrimination hinted at in the beginning of this piece. There are a wide range of deeply rooted structural, economic, social, and educational causes of that inertia. Often, it’s a case of a well-intentioned leader who hasn’t figured out how to move forward with intention. That’s a potential explanation, but it’s not an excuse. It’s time to move forward. 

The pandemic catalysed a seismic shift in the way the world does business, and that demands innovation. Building diverse teams delivers urgently needed innovation, along with a boost in profits and productivity.

You already know the why. Here’s a starter kit for the how:

Tactic 1: Widen the talent pool

The labour shortage is making headlines around the world. It’s nothing new in the tech industry, which has lamented a sector-wide skills shortage for the best part of a decade. And yet that shortage reflects myopia in recruiting as much as it does actual talent shortage. Whether you’re in tech or not, drawing talent from a wider demographic pool and attracting those from underrepresented backgrounds not only expands hiring potential but, even better, expands business potential with new ideas and perspectives. A roster full of categorically likeminded people will ‘circular yes’ themselves into a business-killing statis. That’s the opposite of what you want.

Of course, it’s not enough to widen the talent pool; you also need to ensure that new perspectives are met with open-mindedness and respect. Organisations should look at investing in unconscious bias training for employees as part of this solution. This type of training should be viewed as an ongoing process. It’s critical to understand the ways in which our individual biases seep into our work behaviours.

Tactic 2: Be transparent

Innovation demands transparency. If no one feels like it’s safe to speak up, potential innovation stays silent. That’s especially true if you’re hoping for the real innovation that comes from elevating diverse viewpoints from voices that may not previously have been heard.

To foster a culture of transparency, it’s important to have a continuous and open forum with employees. Corel hosts a virtual all-company meeting each month. I spend about 15 minutes summarising important updates and decisions and the “why” behind them, and the rest of the meeting is open to questions. These questions (which can be submitted anonymously) put top employee concerns, feedback, and ideas on my radar. While no solution is perfect, this meeting has gone a long way toward fostering a culture where everyone’s ideas are valid and valued.

Tactic 3: Lead from the front

Since I joined in the fall of 2020, Corel has hired three additional female executives in the roles of chief revenue officer, chief legal officer, and chief marketing officer. I’m extremely proud that we are a rare example of a tech business that is both led by a female CEO and features 50/50 gender parity in the C-suite.

Driving innovation takes consistent, active effort across the organisation, and CEOs need to lead by example. We can’t settle for inertia. We definitely can’t settle for optics.

Moving forward means challenging the status quo, and challenging the status quo demands diversity of thought, background, and world lens. To thrive in this next chapter rather than watching others surge ahead, start now.


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