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When Will We See Diversity in the C-Suite? We Ask 10 Experts

By Leah Kinthaert

In the recent article “Diversity and inclusion offer visibility for the underrepresented in Life Sciences” Edie Stringfellow, Mass Bio’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion asked: “Where are our CEOs, our board members, that have disabilities, physical challenges, neuro challenges, emotional challenges?” Her question made me stop and think about the true purpose of diversity management. Ultimately diversity and inclusion programs shouldn’t be about simply accepting or “allowing in” one or more groups but about valuing those who are different from us. Diversity is profitable. Diversity in the workplace should be about developing decisionmakers who reflect society at large, not just represent the interests of a small group of people. One in four adults in the US, for example, has some sort of disability, yet as Stringfellow says we rarely find people with disabilities represented in the C-Suite.

Asking questions like ‘where are the people with disabilities?’ Is important. Answering them is even better. Unfortunately the answers don’t come easy. Bloomberg recently detailed the current dilemma with diversity in the workforce: “Companies may succeed in hiring women and people of color, but once those employees get to work, they don’t see a path to advancement.” What of all the Global diversity and inclusion programs we’ve been hearing about since as long ago as the late 1980s, why aren’t they working to shatter glass ceilings? Indeed most executives are still white, non-disabled men from the upper classes, and they hire people who look and talk like them, studies in the US, Sweden and the UK have shown this.

Facebook engineer Carlos Bueno provided some insight into what might have gone wrong to Quartz in 2014: “We’ve created a make-believe cult of objective meritocracy, a pseudo-scientific mythos to obscure and reinforce the belief that only people who look and talk like us are worth noticing…After making such a show of burning down the bad old rules of business, the new ones we’ve created seem pretty similar.” With things are they are can we realistically see representation of all people in the C-Suite of Fortune 500 companies happening in our lifetime? We are going backwards right now, with the number of female Fortune 500 chief executive officers dropping by 25% last year and the number of black CEOs at its lowest since 2002. Companies are spinning their wheels but not going anywhere. What is going wrong, what needs to change, and who needs to make these changes for the C-Suite to become more inclusive? To find out, I reached out to several Diversity and Inclusion experts including Neil Milliken, Gail Zoppo, Sabine VanderLinden, Debra Ruh, Mira Brancu, Vessy Tasheva, Gregory Jenkins, Zahra Jamal, Cathy Gallagher-Louisy and Edie Stringfellow.


Neil Milliken, Head of Accessibility & Digital Inclusion, Atos, @NeilMilliken

“Why do all of our leaders look the same? Recent research by EY for #Valuable showed that only 7% of the C-suite survey identified as disabled. Why despite there being over a billion people with a disability globally do we see so few in leadership roles? These are interesting and tough questions but I believe that some of the answer lies in the fact that we in business have built a culture where leaders believe that they need to be seen as superhuman in order to survive, a culture that requires a display of invincibility and infallibility.”

“I have often commented that I am the most senior disabled person within my organisation and then corrected myself because I am the most senior person to talk about my disability (dyslexia) within my organisation, there is a difference. Around the globe we have people in leadership roles in their 50s and 60s, statistics show that this is an age where many people acquire disabilities or long-term health conditions but it is not something that is talked about boardroom. Many people may not consider themselves disabled even though they have a condition that would qualify. This is not uncommon amongst people who acquire disabilities as they age. It would appear that business leaders are afraid that in a dog eat dog world talking about disability or illness from a personal point of view displays a weakness that makes them vulnerable in their position. Of the respondents to the EY survey one in five C-Suite leaders with a disability said that they did not feel comfortable admitting their disability to colleagues. This view, and their fear is lagging behind society’s direction of travel: we already know that younger generations are much more interested in purpose than just pure profit, they have human centric values and care about diversity, the environment and are striving to find a meaning in what they do and what they consume that might bring about a fairer society.”

“Visionary businesses, ones that Millennials and Generation Z engage with are ones that have a purpose and have leaders that are able to talk to people on a human level. This includes being open about the challenges they face as a result of disability. Leaders that do talk about disability or neuro-divergences for example Sminu Jindal, Richard Branson or Charles Schwab are considered visionary not weak. Disability need not be seen as a disadvantage in business, whilst it may present individuals with personal challenges it is through learning to deal with those personal challenges that we become creative problem solvers, able to apply the kind of flexibility that is required for organisations to thrive in ever-changing times. Now is the time for leadership to embrace the idea that disability inclusion can be a strategic advantage. We need to stop selecting leaders for homogeneity and start selecting them for creativity and their ability to lead. Diverse perspectives create better businesses.”


Gail Zoppo, Diversity Communication Strategist, Zoppo Communications; @ZapWoman

“We’re certainly living in complicated times. While the political landscape in the US looks dismal and forces are at work to divide our nation, I think if enough inclusive-minded CEOs unite – as demonstrated by CEO Action — we can move the dial forward.”

“I am hopeful that we’ll see progress within our lifetimes. This hinges on: Corporate CEOs and leaders of nonprofits really demonstrating their diversity commitment, not just in word but deed; Implementing mentoring and other leadership-development programs in which high-potentials of all ages, races, religions, ethnicities, genders, abilities, and sexual orientations/identities are groomed for succession; encouraging employees (especially managers) to move outside their comfort zones, acknowledge their biases, and learn to value new perspectives and ideas and cultures; and supporting community programs and public policies that uplift and empower underserved communities, not just the bottom line.”

“What’s more, each of us, with every decision we make, must ask ourselves: ‘Do my actions and words reflect the value of inclusion?’”


Sabine VanDerLinden, CEO, Startup Bootcamp Insurtech, Partner, Rainmaking Innovation; @SabineVDL

“What does diversity in business and leadership mean to you? We all come to this discussion from our own personal standpoint. We are influenced by the challenges we’ve faced. However, one commonality remains: diversity and inclusion in business is an issue and this is everyone’s problem. Inclusive and diverse organisations enjoy a staggering 2.3 times higher cash flow. This means, that no matter what the moral arguments for diversity in leadership, it’s essential for the bottom line too.”

“Yet, research shows that we are still failing to create diverse leadership teams. For example, two out of three organisations do not have gender-balanced leadership teams and just 5.1% of CEOs are women. There are only 3 black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. More needs to be done to remove unconscious biases and allow for organisations to grow by embedding an inclusive and diverse culture.”

“Diversity in leadership creates an innovative environment whereby success isn’t constrained by the unwritten rules of time gone by. It leads to stronger connections and powerful relationships. It bolsters organisational reputation, retention and employee motivation.”

“There are many reasons why improving diversity in leadership is still not going far enough. The biggest is the fundamental ethos of recruiting that only those who ‘look and talk like us are worth noticing’. But what do you think? What more can be done to effect change at the core of the problem? How do we genuinely take great strides in diversity?”


Debra Ruh, Global Disability Inclusion Strategist, CEO, Ruh Global Communications; @DebraRuh

“People need to own their whole self and for many people, that means accepting your abilities and disabilities. We are all multi-dimensional human beings and that means we have abilities and disabilities. People also have unconscious biases that can get in the way of diversity. Studies have shown that a diverse board can lead to innovation and better profits.”

“Including leaders of your corporate board that all have similar backgrounds, ages, genders, and religious beliefs can lead to a stagnant board. Having a diverse board allows the board members to tap into their unique backgrounds to help the corporations understand and relate, to not only benefit your workforce to better understand your diverse customers’ needs.”


Mira Brancu, Consulting Psychologist, Founder, Brancu & Associates; @MiraBrancu

“This needs to start at the very early stages of the hiring and promotion process. In most companies there are a near-equal number of men and women at the entry-level. So, the fact that less than 25% make it to the highest levels of the organization means it’s not representative of the workforce. It used to be assumed that this just happens because women leave for family reasons or because they aren’t as ambitious or interested in higher level leadership positions. But that assumption has been disproven. Women are trying just as hard to negotiate similar salaries and promotions. They are trying just as much, if not more, to seek educational and training opportunities.”

“The lack of promotion into higher level positions comes from several factors. First, women are not given the same types of critical exposure to roles within a company that are needed for higher level leadership success, including profit-and-loss responsibilities, larger budgets, and broader management of others. Second, men are often promoted based on potential, whereas women need to demonstrate a significant track record to be considered ‘not a risk’. You actually see the same issue with venture capital outcomes where women only get 2% of the funding: research shows that the questions women entrepreneurs get are focused more on the potential risk and men on the potential future possibilities.”

“How should companies address this? If they are truly committed to changing this (which if you see the data on the incredible outcomes for companies who increase diversity, including gender diversity, in leadership roles, is a no-brainer regarding ROI), there are several things that have so far been shown to make a huge difference.”

“Minimize bias. In industries that are especially heavily male-dominated, one important proactive intervention is to present evidence of the lack of gender differences in competencies and promote the practice of having raters identify job-specific competencies that they agree to evaluate prior to seeing the applications (see meta-analysis) – this practice primes more equitable hiring practices. Minimizing gender-identifying information on applications or resumes may also help.”

“Advocacy. Mentorship is important but sponsorship by those in power is critical. While mentorship provides guidance to employees about professional development and which opportunities to take, sponsorship involves a person with power in the organization (a) advocating to other people in power to consider an employee for important opportunities as they arise and (b) providing access to important social networks that lead to more opportunities. Women need more leaders within organizations to sponsor them for critical leader-making opportunities. Until there is better equity, that kind of active advocacy is needed.”

“Accountability. Unfortunately, some people in leadership roles do not always think about creating equal opportunities all the time without having a more up-front incentive. Offering managers and leaders incentives for supporting initiatives, such as increasing workforce diversity or basing their performance on meeting this goal, helps hold everyone accountable and sends the message that it is a true priority for the company.”

“Access. Create avenues for access to top leaders through mechanisms such as special projects, assignments, or committees.”

“Inclusion. While there is a heavy emphasis on diversity and sensitivity training these days, which is important, there seems to be less focus on inclusivity, which means including all people and making it easy and comfortable for all people to feel included – at meetings, on important committees, in important roles, and in general as a culture of respect and appreciation for all contributions to be valued.”


Vessy Tasheva, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, Author 2019 Inclusion in the Workplace Report: An Independent International Report on Diversity & Inclusion; @Vessytash

“Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging are not a responsibility only to the people from underrepresented groups or the D&I leads in organisations or the white cis gender men from a privileged background. It’s for all of us to figure it out together. Similarly, we won’t have lasting results without acting beyond the scope of the boundaries of our own company or industry.”

“We shouldn’t work in isolation. We have to collaborate. Those will be complex collaborations that engage and activate the full range of stakeholders at all levels, private and public, regardless of the industry section within our country or countries of focus. Focusing D&I efforts only on the immediate surrounding, such as a single company, is like trying to solve climate change by focusing only on a single country.”


Gregory Jenkins, Founder & CEO, Greg Jenkins Consulting; @GregBJenkins

“If C-Suite leaders want to increase inclusivity in their organizations, it must start with them. Executive leaders have to own it – it has to start with self. All people are concerned with what impacts them personally and professionally and senior leaders are no different. It takes a personal realization of the positive impact of a diverse and inclusive organization to recognize the business value of diversity and inclusion.”

“Conversely, some executive leaders may not fully grasp the implications of our rapidly changing global demographics, societal changes, technical advances nor the shifting in education, creativity and collaboration that continues to increase in demand as our world evolves. Inclusive leaders and organizations get it, they understand that if they want their companies to continue to grow and develop, they must change how they think about diversity and how to set the conditions for inclusive work environments – but, it has to start with self.”


Dr. Zahra N. Jamal, Ph.D., CDP, Associate Director, Boniuk Institute, Rice University; @znjamal

“Companies in the top quartile for executive-board diversity (gender/foreign nationals) have had 53% higher Returns on Equity than those in the bottom quartile. Yet despite their commitments to diversity and the business case for it, corporate leadership is more homogeneous than in recent years. To diversify and retain talent in the C-Suite, the CEO, and by extension senior executives, must own and drive diversity and inclusion efforts. They should create a culture of trust, belonging, and ally-ship where all employees bring their whole, intersectional-selves to work and are encouraged to collaborate, voice concerns, and wrestle with disruptive ideas. Boards can hold their CEOs accountable, as can shareholders, employees, suppliers, and customers.”

“Understand existing challenges. Women, minority, queer and religiously-diverse leaders are held to higher standards, penalized for promoting diversity or bringing their queer /religious /class-based/ differently-abled selves to work and face limited opportunities for development and sponsorship to reach the C-Suite.”

“Train in unconscious bias and unpack ‘male corporate culture’ among themselves and the whole company.”

“Embody the company’s values. Companies thrive when their leaders encourage and model flexible-work policies, provide benefits supporting elder- and child-care and promote based on performance and results rather than on face-time.”

“Tap top talent strategically. Given that 75% of senior leaders are ready to leave their job for a more diverse and inclusive company, CEOs can minimize the risk of brain-drain by engaging executives as mentors and sponsors of top-talent diverse employees.”

“Work with diverse groups to co-create and are held accountable for clear, sensitized, measurable diversity goals tied to the business case.”

“Mend the pipeline. The C-Suite would do well to audit hiring, promotion, and talent development plans of senior management and review engagement surveys and exit interviews to pinpoint unconscious bias, address stuck-points, find opportunities for silver medalists, and learn from and coach diverse candidates.”

“Recruit proactively for the C-Suite and address barriers to it. Senior leadership can engage diverse recruiters, require pro-diversity and gender-neutral job descriptions, source talent broadly by considering non-traditional paths to leadership and by employing the Mansfield rule, and engage heterogeneous interview panels.”

“Leverage corporate social responsibility measures to address directly structural injustices in society’s institutions and ethos that perpetuate inequities and implicit biases in the workforce.”

“The present is ripe with opportunity. Millennials will form 50% of the workforce by 2020 and 75% of the workforce by 2025. On average, 80% of Gen Ys say that a company’s diverse and inclusive practices drive their decision whether or not to work for and stay with an employer. Each year, with up to 15% of companies looking for new CEOs, companies can leverage boomer executives to sponsor diverse Gen Xers and Millennials in leadership development to enable continuity of company vision; transfer essential knowledge, skills, and networks; and enhance the company’s global growth. Doing so will also increase retention in a candidate’s market.”


Cathy Gallagher-Louisy, Senior Director, Consulting at Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI); @CatGL

“In Canada, we hear a lot that diversity will naturally trickle up. That is not happening. In 2012 we had 1 female CEO and 8 female CFOs in the TSX 60 Canada. In 2018 we had zero female CEOS and 3 female CFOs. Our statistics on pay equity for women and minority groups are worse than the US. One dramatic statistic which I think sums up the dire situation well tells us that an immigrant woman in Canada with a University education makes less than half of what a white man without a University education makes!”

“My organization, CCDI is hired by companies to help them promote diversity and inclusion as priorities in the workplace. We have found that when we go into a company and do our consulting process 89% of corporate leaders think they’re doing well on inclusion while 34% of black employees, for example, think they are doing well. There’s a huge disconnect. We give these sometimes very sobering statistics to the people who hire us and while some are concerned, often our research is outright rejected and picked apart.”

“We have found that those in power, white male able bodied men have a great deal of social privilege and perks, they see harassment of minorities or women for example as anomalies because they don’t deal with it themselves. They are also simply unaware of their own biases or believe they are bias free, but we all have biases. 70% of professionals Globally minimize the importance of cultural difference.”

“Another main reason the C-Suite are often shocked when they see how their employees feel is the simple fact that information gets filtered as it goes up the chain of command. Senior leaders have a much rosier view of employee experience than people at the bottom.”

“Organizations may be open to hiring diverse individuals, but once they are in they want them to all behave the same, they are not open to diversity of thought. And what we’re seeing, with the glass ceiling for women and those in discriminated against groups is that HR may be getting diversity training, but ultimately it’s management who is making the decisions about promotions and hiring. There are a thousand decisions made by people, usually not trained or sensitive to diversity issues, which add up to put some into leadership roles and others to glass ceilings.”

“Lastly, even with the right amount of resources and staff dedicated to inclusion at your organization (and people rarely have this), Global benchmarks from GDIB show that it will take 20 to 30 years for an organization to get to a best practice level. What we’re seeing, unfortunately, is that most companies are not going to take 30 years but much longer; there’s a great deal of inconsistency, a Diversity role left unfilled for two years here, performance goals in place one year and not the next.”


Edie Stringfellow, Director, Diversity & Inclusion, Mass Bio; @MassBio

“I do see change happening in my lifetime because there is a slow shift in the approach to D&I and its value proposition across industries. To be intentional about D&I is not about filling quotas or check-boxes. In the life sciences, it’s about broadening the universe of experiences, perspectives & ideas you can draw upon to develop the therapies and devices needed to increase patient outcomes, which, in turn, grows the bottom line. More companies are starting from that belief and applying it across hiring. “

“Moreover, companies are now taking real action toward an inclusive culture. This not only helps with employee retention, but with new employee recruitment at all levels. People want to work at places where there are other people who look like them, act like them, and have similar backgrounds. One thing that I have come to learn is that D&I is extremely personal (where you were raised; how you were raised; socio-economic status; trials & tribulations through life’s journey). Companies must create an environment that is engaging and encourages everyone to give 150% effort every day toward shared objectives. A company is only as successful at the level that everyone will contribute.”

“At the end of the day, diversity is imperative for success. Heterogenous groups approach problem solving in a multitude of ways thus producing more groundbreaking solutions. Research proves that inclusion is critical for innovation. And, you need decision makers from all backgrounds, a true reflection of society, for this to happen.”