Michelle Gadsden-Williams, Managing Director, Global Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, BlackRock won Excellence in Diversity & Inclusion at Markets Media Group’s 2022 Women in Finance (U.S.) Awards.
Who have been the main influences in your career?
The main influencers are my father, who is a retired executive, and my mother, who is an entrepreneur. They’ve instilled and reinforced the value of “unrelenting straight-talk” which in essence means speaking with clarity and conviction about the things that you are most passionate about. They consistently demonstrate what living a life of meaning and value meant and how to live with purpose. One of the many things that my father would say to my sisters and I growing up is that “we are not here on this earth to occupy space. We are here to make a difference and it is up to each of us to determine what that difference is”. In my case, that difference is the work that I’ve had the privilege of doing for close to 30 years as a DEI practitioner.
What’s something you’re really proud of and why?
There is not one, but many things that I am proud of. In terms of my career, all that I have ever wanted to do was to leave workplaces in better condition than when I arrived. I would describe the role of a Chief Diversity Officer as a strategist, a convener, a constructive disruptor and a change agent. Ultimately, our goal is to transform cultures so that they are fair and equitable, and where every single individual can realize their North Star or ambition. I can say, confidently, that I have done a little bit of that in every place I have been.
What is the importance of promoting Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) initiatives for an organization?
DEI is a business strategy and no longer deemed as the nice or right thing to do. There are still many barriers and challenges that historically under-represented individuals face in the workplace. We need to ensure that we have fair outcomes in terms of career trajectories and that we have support systems like leadership development, mentors/sponsors, employee networks, etc in place. Organizations of yesteryear were not initially built with diversity in mind. A lot of the same structures and processes from the past still exist. Today’s diversity practice, what I call DEI 3.0, is about reexamining past policies, practices, and programming to ensure equal treatment in the workplace and fair access to advancement opportunities for all.
In addition, the importance of DEI is even more critical today than it was yesterday because it has evolved into a true global business strategy. And the demand for and rise in prominence of the role of the CDO reflects the fact that organizations are responding to this structural shift.
There are all kinds of diversity (gender diversity, race and ethnicity, LGBTQ, economic background.) How are you thinking about those kinds of diversities?
There is no one size fit all strategy that encompasses all dimensions of diversity. You have to customize and localize your strategies to address the needs of underrepresented populations. We also need to recognize that each person has unique circumstances. So, I think it is a matter of developing a meaningful, robust, and global strategy that makes sense for the talent that you want to attract, develop, retain and reflect society.
How to retain, develop, and grow the share of women in leadership?
In my view, sourcing and recruiting diverse talent is not that difficult. The difficulty comes in regarding retention. Companies focused on the representation aspect of diversity, equity and inclusion don’t always add equal emphasis to the E nor the I – the equity or inclusion part of the equation. There needs to be equal weight to all three. It is no longer enough just to have sufficient representation. You have to ensure that you are creating an inclusive work environment through systems and processes that will ultimately drive fair outcomes for all employees. In terms of how to retain, develop, and grow the share of women in leadership, you have to make them a priority. You need benefits, flexible work options, and programming to support working women who are mothers, caregivers and have other responsibilities outside of the workplace. You have to take a more strategic approach to ensuring that the infrastructure is there and making sure that they also see a reflection of themselves at all levels of the organization, not just at the entry level, or the middle layer. They want to look up and see role models at the top of these organizations as well. Other key components that are helpful to grow the share of women in leadership is investing in their development and advancement by offering bespoke leadership development opportunities that provide candid feedback mechanisms, sponsorship, and mentorship programs.
What do you hope the conversation around gender equity in the industry looks like in 10 or 15 years?
Advancements have been made across the global business landscape with respect to DEI. In recent years, there has been a call to action like we’ve never seen before. There’s been an up-tick in terms of the commitment on behalf of most companies and industries which has led to more focused efforts – specifically around gender equity. There is also a heightened level of expectation on behalf of our employees, prospective candidates, clients, regulators, etc. The societal incidents that have occurred over the past two years was an inflection point for a lot of organizations. DEI has become even more essential and many companies have risen to the occasion to ensure that DEI is a key business enabler that will propel organizations forward – and words are commensurate with action. As a mentor of mine used say, “progress happens over time, not overnight”. But progress is progress, nonetheless. I am an optimist. I honestly believe that in 10 to 15 years, the discourse will continue to evolve in a positive fashion and commitments will yield more positive outcomes in terms of gender representation, equity and parity at all levels.