We hear a lot about both innovation and inclusion in the workplace today, and as it turns out, the two are intertwined. Not only are innovation initiatives more effective when the workforce is inclusive, according to multiple studies, but an increased focus on innovation can also drive diversity.

This is the viewpoint of Dr. Wendy Cukier, the Founder and Director of the Ted Rogers School of Management Diversity Institute, and a professor of Information Technology Management at Ryerson University. Cukier was the keynote speaker at Cognizant’s Women Empowered Executive Dinner, held recently in Toronto.

I found Cukier’s message particularly applicable to women executives, and especially those in the tech industry, who need to ensure their organizations are innovative but who also face challenges when it comes to full inclusion in the upper echelons of the workforce. Particularly compelling was Cukier’s ideas for helping executives everywhere – and particularly women – to become “change makers:” people who turn the tide of rigid cultures, organizational structures and processes to drive both innovation and social change.

What Innovation Is – and Isn’t

Cukier started by defining what innovation actually is: It’s not technology per se but the application of technology that causes us to do things differently. So when you look at Uber or Airbnb, the disruption lies not in the underpinning technology but in the sharing economy model. Without widespread user adoption, of course, there is no innovation. And to ensure widespread use, both STEM skills and social science skills are crucial.

Driving innovation, then, involves change across several elements:

  • Leadership: Valuing both entrepreneurial and bureaucratic mindsets and styles, understanding where each is optimal, and creating spaces for both.
  • Culture: Utilizing new tools such as crowdsourcing and social media to spur new ideas and techniques such as cross-discipline collaboration.
  • The “absorptive capacity” of workers and customers: Understanding how much change humans are capable of embracing and dealing with.
  • The workforce: Developing new skills (for both STEM and social science skills) and techniques for tapping into new talent pools, such as incubators, innovation zones and hackathons.

The Inclusion-Innovation Relationship

Companies would be remiss if they didn’t intentionally recruit from diverse populations, such as the physically challenged and minority populations, in their pursuit of innovation-related skills, especially when study after study reveals the link between inclusion, organizational performance and innovation. And yet in many cases, that’s not what’s happening. While women now make up 20% of the board seats of the Fortune 500, and there’s been an increase in the share of board of director appointees from underrepresented groups, only one in five board appointees in the Fortune 500 are not white, and there were fewer women appointed to board seats in 2016 than in 2015.

According to Cukier, graduates from university with a severe disability face the same employment outcomes as a high school dropout. Minority women are outnumbered 16:1 in Toronto corporate leadership roles even though they are equal in number. And applicants with “foreign-sounding” last names are 30% less likely to be called for an interview, she says. When it comes to STEM skills specifically, fewer women than ever are pursuing computer science degrees, and the percent in engineering remains flat.

In Cukier’s estimation, all of these realities represent a real challenge to both the employment outlook for minority workers and for companies intent on innovation-driven performance. This is why she is intent on mobilizing what is known about innovation to drive inclusion.

wendy cukier
Dr. Wendy Cukier speaks at Cognizant’s Women Empowered Executive Dinner in Toronto.

Becoming a Change Maker

The good news is, business leaders can execute intentional strategies to successfully increase diversity and inclusion, Cukier says, both at an individual and organizational level. For example:  

  • Start with you. Women in business need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities so they can shore up areas in need of development and emphasize skills they already have. Women tend to be less confident overall in their abilities in the workplace, so it’s also essential to overcome the confidence gap. There’s strength in numbers, so women should build their networks and use their sphere of influence, which can include vendors they work with, customers and clients, subordinates, peers and fellow executives.
  • Be an ally, not a bystander. Women are more inclined to focus on what they can’t do than on what they’re capable of. As a result, issuing a mass communiqué about a particular high-level job opening will likely result in an applicant base that includes more men than women. To encourage more women and ethnic minority applicants, leaders need to approach these people specifically and encourage them to apply or engage them in a plan to boost their skills and confident levels. This can be done through formal and informal mentorship and sponsorship programs or simply by becoming an ally to individuals with strong potential for advancement and helping them create a pathway to a higher level position.
  • Avoid “manels.” A movement is afoot to discourage speakers from serving on panels made up only of men (for which the term “manel” has been coined). A growing number of people have pledged to refuse such invitations when women are not represented. All business leaders can encourage speaker diversity by also suggesting names of women to conference organizers.
  • Recognize alternative pathways to the top. In a study of 57 female CEOs, 40% started out with some technical expertise, but close to 20% had a background in business, finance or economics. The fact is, financial skills and some degree of tech literacy are crucial for leading organizations today, and developing these skills can be as effective as encouraging more intensive backgrounds in STEM and engineering.
  • Put your money where your mouth is. Procurement strategies can be a key influence on driving diversity and social change, Cukier says. Companies such as Westpac in Australia are setting goals to incorporate more minority-owned businesses into their ecosystem of supply chain partners.

Overcoming entrenched societal and organizational stereotypes, not to mention undoing biased legislation and policy-setting practices, can be daunting. But as Cukier points out, individuals have more power than they might think to drive social change. The outcome will be beneficial not just for women and minorities but for everybody, as it will make organizations more successful, more profitable and better places to work.

Karen McLoughlin

Karen McLoughlin

Karen McLoughlin oversees Cognizant’s worldwide Financial Planning & Analysis, Accounting & Controllership, Tax, Investor Relations, Treasury, Internal Audit and Enterprise Risk Management... Read more