South Africa

Give diversity, equality, inclusion and PDIs some PDA


Some years ago, it was something of a fad in business to refer to the Japanese word for “crisis”, which consists of the kanjis – originally Chinese (Han) symbols coopted into Japanese – for “dangerous” and “opportunity”.

A criticism of this “never let a good crisis go to waste” outlook is that it can lead to a glib, Pollyannaish, lipstick-on-a-pig view of problems. The other end of the spectrum is a kind of everything is-broken defeatism.

That range of reaction extends to how DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion) is viewed: one reaction is that it’s a nettle that must be grasped, necessary but often uncomfortable. This is a recurrent view in SA, with its skewed demographics and historic inequities.

But again, the topic can be reframed: Ford’s newly appointed chief connected vehicle software officer Roz Ho recently shared a refreshing view of DEI.

Amongst her other achievements, Ho developed the world’s first largescale ATM system and designed and wrote all the feature specifications for PowerPoint.

She oversaw the development of Mac Office, including Word and Excel. She is, simply put, a superstar in her field of expertise, a true luminary. She’s already had a lifetime of challenging assumptions, not least because as a young Asian woman, she was a minority in her field.

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One example: when cellphones still had buttons rather than touchscreens, she asked the one glaring question that hadn’t occurred to her male colleagues: around 50% of the phone’s users would be female and might have long nails. The buttons needed to accommodate that.

Another example: while working on Microsoft’s Xbox game console, she realised the Kinect motion-sensor gaming system couldn’t “see” her. The reason? Ho is 1.52-m tall. Other users would be, too. The system needed adjusting.

Ho used these anecdotes to illustrate a timely and instructive message: diversity in teams and organisations vastly improves how they can meet customers’ needs and improve the audience experience.

The more representative your teams are of your target market, the better they’ll deliver what the customers want and need.

This seems logical, but many organisations have homogenous cultures that resist diversification, often not through hostility, but through stasis.

So, what relevance does this have in SA, where our DEI challenges are different to those of other countries?

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What lessons can we apply to what can be seen as a divisive, thorny issue?

The first is that we must avoid DEI feeding into the tendency of “othering” in any organisation: it’s harnessed by populists and demagogues the world over and we’ve seen its toxic, even lethal runoff.

Business culture is not immune to that.

Secondly, we must appreciate that the process will be experienced by some as stressful or threatening, no matter how well it’s done; and that it might be seen as part of a greater malaise around SA’s sluggish economic growth and thwarted socioeconomic potential.

We’re in a chaotic environment. We’re seeing very capable individuals of every population group leaving our shores, or talking about leaving, because they don’t see opportunities for themselves or their children.

We must accept that not everyone will be equally open to or accepting of DEI. A private dealer principal whose family has built their business over a few generations might, understandably, prefer it passes to their children rather than to a previously disadvantaged individual (PDI) partner.

Third, we must be serious about the process: only a wholehearted commitment to DEI will deliver tangible outcomes.

An example: since Ford inaugurated its DEI council in November 2021, the company has had a 30% improvement in females in senior management and over 10% improvement in previously disadvantaged individuals (PDIs) in senior management.

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Through solid investment and effort, we’ve achieved more in a little over a year than in the past 20.

Women of Ford is a group within the organisation that continues to be instrumental in addressing female-specific issues and boosting awareness of what women need in what’s still a male-dominated environment.

The lesson: when your people try to make a difference that will boost the organisation, allow them to do so and support them.

We must be scrupulously fair and fastidious about ensuring DEI is inclusive and equitable.

Healthy competition is good, but the best person should win.

We must see DEI as an opportunity for our people to compete and excel rather than feel disempowered.

We’re a nation accustomed to difficult conversations. It’s a legacy of a turbulent past and of current, seemingly intractable problems, including poverty, inequality and unemployment.

But our diversity holds potent potential to address those.

Vanmali is sales operations executive director at Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa, chair of Ford Southern Africa diversity and inclusion committee.