Equality isn’t a just part of our job here at Salesforce – it’s part of our whole mission. As our CEO, Marc Benioff puts it, “Our higher purpose is to drive the Age of Equality”, and equality was rightly a major theme at the Salesforce World Tour in London last week. 

But what does this drive for equality look like on the ground? It’s about working to build a world where equal pay, equal opportunity, equal education and equal rights are realities. 

It’s a commitment to supporting education and apprenticeship programs right across the UK, opening up exciting opportunities for underrepresented groups – and building the pipeline of diverse talent needed to fill the UK digital skills gap

It’s also about sharing different perspectives. Which is exactly what we set out to achieve during the The Role of Business Driving Towards Equality keynote panel - a fitting curtain closer at Salesforce World Tour London 2017. 

Tony Prophet, Chief Equality Officer at Salesforce, chaired the panel and was joined by:

Here’s what went down.

A case we’re bored of making, but still have to

As the panel kicked off, one thing everyone agreed was that, while it’s taken a long time to get where we are today, we’re still nowhere near the end of the road. And as frustrating as it can be to have to make the case for equality over and over, it’s something we have to keep doing.

Bringing it back to business

The theme of the panel was business’s role in driving equality. And all of the panellists noted the importance of showing the direct link between the equality conversation and a business’ talent attraction and retention efforts – and, ultimately, to commercial results. 

Richard Beaven raised the talent question: “How can a business hope to attract and nurture the talent of the future if it doesn’t show that it’s inclusive and diverse?”

Richard is a co-founder of Link, the network designed to create and maintain workplaces that attract and retain the best LGBT talent to the insurance industry. “Things were so bad in insurance that gay people entering the industry were stepping back into the closet,” he explained. 

Richard spoke about the progress the organisation has made – “Link was founded by four gay guys in a pub, and now it has 600 members” – but he knows there’s more work ahead. 

Like so many long-established industries, insurance finds itself in times of unprecedented change, and this is both a challenge and an opportunity. 

“Insurance is traditionally seen as a pretty unsexy industry, but it’s changing fast. They say that half of the employees in insurance today will be gone in five years, and we’re seeing huge spikes in demand for roles in technology and content creation.”

If organisations succeed in turning a diversity challenge into an equality opportunity, they stand a better chance of filling new skills shortages by attracting new kinds of people. If they fail, that’s another story. 

Dr Vivienne Ming laid out the harsh business reality for companies who don’t succeed. “Creative talent needs to be celebrated, to feel like they’re somewhere special. This goes beyond corporate social responsibility. If you don’t get it right, you might as well start thinking about your next business model.” 

The message is clear: Embrace diversity or die.

Beyond statistics

For more than a decade, there have been high-profile reports showing the business benefits of gender diversity, with a greater proportion of women in senior positions linked with better business performance.

And a series of diversity targets have been set. But while progress has been made, we still see headlines like this one from 2015: Fewer women leading FTSE firms than men named John

“The point is, these statisticss alone won’t motivate people to act,” said Dr Rhian-Mari Thomas. “They aren’t working. So what will it take?”

For Rhian-Mari, the answer is to make it personal. “It’s personal stories that have the power to inspire change: authentic conversations that show how we can be brave and vulnerable.”

Tell stories – and make them heard

Vivienne told the story of a programmer who was looking for a job in Silicon Valley. But with no college degree, he was getting nowhere.

That was until an algorithm was designed to process candidates without bias – and it learned that he was one of the best Ruby developers around. Vivienne’s company wrote that algorithm, and they also gave him a job.

What’s interesting is the ripple effect that’s possible in situations like this, and how one person’s example can inspire many more to follow. 

The number one predictor that someone from any under-represented population will choose to participate in a program or apply for a job is a belief that their work will pay off. And for that, they need to see people like them succeeding. The Ruby developer was the first of his peer group to get a job in Silicon Valley, but now he’s an example for more people from his background to follow.

A more diverse diversity

Jackie Fast broadened the discussion further: “If we’re talking about boardroom quotas, why not look beyond gender and say we need 30% gay people, or young people, or ethnic minorities?”

Ageism is a breed of discrimination Jackie knows all too well. As a young job applicant, she felt she wasn’t given the trust – or the opportunities – she deserved. So Jackie decided to blaze her own trail. She founded a sponsorship company, Slingshot, and she’s made it her business to give young people, and those with less experience, the chance to prove their value. 

Jackie is a woman in a male-dominated industry (a lot of the time, sponsorship means sports sponsorship), but her success doesn’t have anything to do with her sex. 

“It doesn’t matter if I have a passion for sports or not. What makes the difference is that I’m passionate about collaborating and working smarter.”

Diversity can be defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs or other ideologies, and more. Whatever dimensions of diversity you cultivate, the more you have, the more you experience the underlying principle at play: diversity of thinking. 

Diversity of thinking

Dr Vivienne Ming explained this creative diversity and shared some of her expertise as a theoretical neuroscientist. “We call it cognitive diversity. How that diversity manifests itself is secondary; it’s the different ways of thinking that count.”

So what does that look like in practice? “People with different backgrounds and experiences are very likely to think differently, and that’s great for group problem solving. The only things you need are trust and communication. If you have those, then a heterogeneous group will outperform a homogeneous group.”

How do we get there?

If diversity – and, ultimately, diversity of thinking – is the goal, how do we get there? What action can businesses take to speed the process? As our panellists prove, organisations only make this kind of change when their people take responsibility and act. 

They had plenty of advice for those looking to make a difference: 

  • Provide role models – or be one yourself, as long as you do it the right way. That means actually walking the walk, and showing those values in practice. It also means making local, accessible role models available to the next generation. Not distant, high-flying role models whose examples might be hard to relate to, or seem out of reach. 
  • Try reverse mentoring – to make sure the learning goes both ways. This is a great opportunity to learn from people whose stories you aren’t used to hearing. 
  • Create intern or apprenticeship programs – to open up opportunities to all, and give your apprentices influential roles.
  • Think about how you define diversity. Are you looking broadly enough? Remind yourself too that discrimination goes both ways. For example, ageism can affect younger and older people. 
  • Go to schools – it starts there. Outside of the business.
  • Ultimately, it’s about finding ways to talk – and making the stories heard, both by the people who could benefit from similar opportunities, and by the senior leadership who, while often blind to the realities on the ground, have the power to effect positive change in their organisations. 

Watch the full video recording from The Role of Business Driving Towards Equality session and be the one to take action in your organisation.