Opinion: what will it take to make a UN agency truly diverse
By Guoqi Wu - Associate Vice-President Corporate Services Department, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)
Last year, the United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres published his vision for the next 25 years, with a key commitment to upgrade the vast institution he leads by putting ‘people at the centre, taking into account age, gender and diversity.’ There is indeed much interest in promoting workplace diversity recently - and it is about time. Already back in 2014, McKinsey examined the likelihood that companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity ﬁnancially outperform those in the bottom quartile. McKinsey found a 35% “diversity dividend”. This trend is on the rise, and the diversity dividend increased to 36% in 2019. For a UN agency like the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) that is committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), this “return” could mean 36% more people lifted out of poverty and hunger.
While the goal of promoting diversity is essential, it is definitely not enough and organisations like ours need to also embrace equity and inclusion to make a real difference in how we operate. It may seem like semantics, but defining these mutually reinforcing concepts is vital to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce.
Diversity means recognizing and valuing a broad range of identities, experiences, and beliefs, whether visible or invisible, inherent or acquired. These include gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, age, language, sexual orientation, abilities and disabilities, culture, religion, profession, education, marital status, etc. Equity is about giving people what they need in order to make things fair, which may require treating people differently, depending on their needs. Inclusion, on the other hand, refers to the way people show that they value and respect one another's unique contributions. An inclusive environment is one where everyone can be themselves and have an equal chance to contribute, where differences are seen as valuable and used for the good of the organization.
Taken together, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) lead to a more effective workplace culture and environment, as organizations are better able to win top talent, improve employee satisfaction, and sharpen decision-making. It also ensures we retain relevance and credibility. Why? Because while we ask partners – such as our member states, private sector companies and grant recipients - to align to the SDGs (including SDG5 which focuses specifically on gender and SDG10 which focuses on reducing inequality), promoting diversity in our own workforce also means we walk the talk. Moreover, development organizations such as IFAD deal with a diversity of partners, so greater diversity also means we talk alike.
Enhancing DEI in the workplace is easier said than done. Some of the many challenges are structural and budgetary. For example, an organization cannot just diversify an existing workforce overnight – that would be discrimination against current staff members. Sometimes challenges are deeply rooted in the system, like the need to be fluent in English and/or have more than one UN language. This means that poor people from developing countries are not only at a disadvantage because they have fewer opportunities to go to university, but even with a university degree they still may lack the required language skills. Even once a workforce is more diverse, it is not a guarantee that there is a level playing field (equity), and the specific needs of some staff may not be duly recognised, placing them at a clear disadvantage. Moreover, unconscious biases disrupt inclusion, with staff made to feel like second-rate citizens as a result of their nationality, gender, disabilities, etc.
There is much that can be done to help attract and retain greater diversity in our workforce, and ensure that the experience of employees is a positive one by paying attention also to equity and inclusion. We need to recognise that some challenges may be deeply embedded in our systems, while others may require a change in organizational culture, to unveil and uproot unconscious biases.
One example of this is addressing gender equality. In 2017, IFAD analysed female representation in IFAD, looking at statistics and trends over a 15-year period, concentrating on the factors that may have limited the selection, appointment, advancement and/or retention of women in managerial roles. The findings of the analysis allowed the organization to target actions to address the pain points identified.
Gender requirements are now part of IFAD’s selection and appointment process. All IFAD vacancy announcements explicitly encourage the application of female candidates and at least one-third of short-lists should consist of qualified female candidates. Additionally, interview panels must be balanced in terms of gender representation to avoid possible unconscious bias. IFAD is also rolling out gender equality workshops to upskill all supervisors and staff to be more knowledgeable in gender equality issues and to apply the principles in their day-to-day work.
While this is helping to ensure gender diversity, we need a more comprehensive approach to integrate inclusion and equity issues and help us focus and prioritise resources. For this reason, IFAD is one of the few international organisations which has developed a DEI strategy which has recently been approved by our Executive Board. Formulating the strategy, which includes a statement of commitment and key guiding principles, has been an important step to pool together existing initiatives within an integrated DEI umbrella.
We have set up a governance structure, including senior leadership participation alongside staff from a diversity of categories, to epitomise the DEI agenda. DEI advocates have been appointed in headquarters, and in regional and country offices to support the implementation and dissemination of the strategy. They will organize DEI awareness-raising initiatives and ensure that colleagues have access to tools, materials and resources about practices and initiatives on DEI and contribute to identifying gaps and needs.
It is important to emphasise that there are no shortcuts, quick fixes or silver bullets, and promoting DEI needs persistent and unwavering commitment. As a first step, articulating commitment through the development of a strategy helps to hold an organisation accountable to itself, its staff and members. Regular monitoring and reporting on progress, through benchmarking and key performance indicators is needed, and partnerships and exchanges of ideas and experiences are vital.