Interview with diversity consultant: "The shitstorm is already waiting in front of the door"

When the rainbow flag is waved in companies on Christopher Street Day, in many places it is a matter of whitewashing, says Tijen Onaran.

Interview with diversity consultant: "The shitstorm is already waiting in front of the door"

When the rainbow flag is waved in companies on Christopher Street Day, in many places it is a matter of whitewashing, says Tijen Onaran. The entrepreneur, who advises with her company on diversity issues, attests that the German economy has a lot of catching up to do. For example in terms of the World Cup.

Tijen Onaran, 37, is an entrepreneur, investor and one of the most prominent advocates for diversity in Germany. With her company Global Digital Woman, she has been organizing numerous initiatives for the advancement of women for six years. Two years ago, she also founded the consulting firm ACI Consulting, which specializes in diversity issues. In an interview, Onaran attests that the German economy has a lot of catching up to do.

Ms Onaran, at the World Cup there is a lot of talk about diversity, about fair conditions for everyone in all organizations. How diverse and fair is the German economy?

Externally, every company is committed to diversity. All top managers claim that they think equality, equal rights and the participation of disadvantaged groups are right. But I don't have the ambition there, it's more like that in the area of ​​feel-good diversity. At Christopher Street Day, everyone waves the rainbow flag and posts a happy photo on social media such as Linkedin and Twitter. But that is banal whitewashing that usually has little to do with the reality lived in companies. What do the bosses know about their staff, about their background and their interests? Is there open talk about sexuality, descent, religion or disabilities? Are there cases of discrimination and are they punished? Attitude needs action. And there is actually still a lot of catching up to do in the German economy.

Why is it difficult for many companies to take a clear stance on the soccer World Cup in Qatar, which is taking place under repression from the state and the organizers?

Showing your composure requires courage and the irrepressible will to withstand headwinds. My experience is that companies do not want to or cannot withstand this headwind in terms of diversity, both internally and externally. And in football in particular there are many economic dependencies that ultimately take precedence over attitude. It also shows again that many managers only wake up when the shitstorm has already started, when the media, customers or investors are really putting pressure on them. Then a lot of people get nervous and ask consultants like me for help. But diversity is not a quick fix. Top management must be willing to deal with the topic fundamentally and thoroughly, must formulate goals and work through and monitor them with a concrete catalog of measures. As with any strategic, operational project. Then the successes and failures of diversity goals become visible and measurable. But that takes years, you don't have to fool yourself.

Who is asking you for help?

My consulting firm ACI has taken on over 30 projects on various diversity issues in more than 20 companies over the past two years. That is a broad spectrum from Deutsche Bahn to the drugstore chain DM to Gothaer Versicherung and Sparda Bank. They all have very different requirements and needs.

What do companies want? It is difficult to order diversity and have it delivered. What is the order?

In fact, we usually have to find that out first. Many want to know from us how well they are already positioned and what they can still improve. Some are dissatisfied with their progress so far and don't know how to move forward. Some are just starting out and want to know what diversity and inclusion is. Deutsche Bahn has launched an incredible number of initiatives over the past 20 years: internal women's networks, campaigns for International Women's Day or Christopher Street Day, there are women on the board who, like Sigrid Nikutta, also send strong signals to the outside world. That's good, but non-binding commitment is no longer enough. The corporations have to deliver concrete results, if only to meet the legal requirement for the quota for women, but also to cover their existing and foreseeable personnel requirements. Diversity becomes a strategic task for which goals and appropriate measures must be agreed and implemented. Anyone who sets the goal of promoting 30 percent more women to all management levels in the next five years must set up the appropriate recruiting and promotion process.

That's actually the job of the human resources department. Why does an external consultant have to be hired?

I observe that internal power politics often prevent diversity. Human resources departments only have limited influence there. They are not free in their decisions, but dependent on budgets and the goodwill of top management. I don't have to please anyone. I'm paid to put my finger in the wound and if the people I'm talking to persistently refuse my approaches, I can leave too. I'm very direct and honest. Thats my job. We don't play any power games, we want to break down such blockades. Most of the time, it helps to make it clear to decision-makers that demands for inclusion and fairness will never go away. And any breach of it can be disclosed at any time. The shitstorm is already waiting outside the door. There is no escape other than opening up and being at the forefront of change.

Why are there blockages? What are the arguments against an open and diverse company?

The introduction and implementation of a sustainable diversity strategy has painful consequences. In order to achieve a quota for women, the search for women must continue in every recruitment process until the right person is found. It's a lot of work and leads to pimples, rashes, anxiety and uncontrolled emotions in some men who previously had a secure career path in mind. The top management has to endure this and moderate it well. Most shy away from saying it outright: If we want or need more women, then we will let women go first. Most diversity activities do not fail because of the activities, but because of insufficient communication.

And how can diversity be better communicated and practiced?

Definitely not because of even more colorful advertising brochures from the companies that list all the buzzwords from gender to inclusion and unconscious bias. It is better to bring the topics into everyday company life and set an example. This is a trend that is slowly breaking through in some international corporations. At Siemens, for example, it is not the HR department that is responsible for diversity, but the Cyber ​​Security Officer. Responsibility for diversity development is shifted to an important, operational business unit whose performance is continuously measured in numbers. If such a team is exemplarily diverse and delivers verifiable successes, it becomes a role model in the company.

In which sectors is there the greatest need to catch up?

We are currently receiving a large number of requests for advice from the insurance industry. They have a pressure to justify themselves to their customers, who reflect the whole diversity of society, while insurance agents still appear as a very homogeneous male group. Our customer, Gothaer Versicherung, also wants to tackle a very special diversity issue that is much less well known to the public than the quota of women and social background: the so-called age inclusion, i.e. a balanced diversity of generations in the company. Especially for saturated traditional companies, the clash of older and younger employees with diverging expectations and working methods is a major challenge. To do this, we first survey the age distribution in the departments and analyze where a greater mix is ​​needed and how the potential of younger and older employees can be optimally exploited.

Where else can you start?

In addition to data collection to analyze the workforce structure, employee surveys are very informative for us. When board members complain that the women in their company are simply not interested in jobs at the top management levels. Then we ask the women why that is. Most of the time nobody has thought of that. As a neutral, external body, we can usually hold more open discussions than the HR department in-house. In such cases, we then hear that women are not deterred by the workload and the inability to reconcile managerial positions and family life. Much less attractive to many women is the egomaniacal culture and the harsh tone among top executives. It doesn't come across as open, interested and inclusive. Women simply don't enter such battlefields.

Creating such a diverse working paradise overwhelms many bosses. What do you tell them?

You don't have to be perfect. There is no such thing as perfectionism in diversity management. There are various aspects that make a company more diverse and successful and every boss should declare which priority he wants to set. What suits the company? What can be implemented credibly and sustainably? Many executives loathe quotas because they are afraid of not achieving their goals. But it is much worse not to think about how to make the company attractive and better for as many different people as possible. Not the quota is the goal, but the way to get there.

Jenny spoke to Tijen Onaran from Zeppelin

This interview first appeared on "Capital".

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