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The authority on gender empowerment in business for nearly 20 years.

7 ways to create an equitable and inclusive workplace

Written by Editor

December 5, 2023

By Katlego Mashishi, MD at Idea Engineers


While we have made some slow progress towards ‘diversity’—which is mandated through black economic empowerment codes and employment equity laws—most businesses still have some work to do on the ‘inclusion’ side. Let’s take a closer look at what these terms mean before diving into some ways of improving inclusion. 

According to Gallup, diversity is “the full spectrum of human differences.” These may include age, gender, disability, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, educational background, marital status, sexual orientation and even cognitive styles. Inclusion “can be assessed as the extent to which employees are valued, respected, accepted and encouraged to fully participate in the organisation,” says Gallup.

As these definitions show, an organisation can be diverse without being inclusive. We can, for example, promote a woman to a position on the executive committee or board to show diversity. But if she isn’t included—if her opinions aren’t sought or respected—her ability to help bring about organisational change will be limited. 

To change this picture, we need to start looking beyond black economic empowerment and employment equity scorecards, towards how we actively develop cultures of inclusion. Here are seven tips for building a more inclusive business:


Examine your own unconscious bias 

All of us form stereotypes about different groups of people in society through what we learn from peers, our education, family and other social institutions over our lifetimes. These stereotypes shape our attitudes and behaviours towards others, yet most of us aren’t even aware of their existence. 

Our unconscious bias may lead us to unwittingly discriminate against others in small and big ways based on factors such as age, disability, race, gender, sexual orientation, economic class and other personal characteristics. Before we can become truly diverse and inclusive, leaders must examine and confront their own internal biases. This helps us to behave in ways that are fairer and more rational. 


Be curious 

Business leaders that want to create an equitable and inclusive workplace should be ready to immerse themselves in diverse environments. They should be actively curious about the different lived experiences of people from different groups. This engenders respect, understanding and acceptance of different worldviews in the workplace.  


Set measurable goals for diversity and inclusion  

Diversity and inclusion should be about more than tick-box compliance with employment equity and broad-based black economic empowerment metrics – it should be about creating a workplace where everyone feels included and respected. To achieve this goal, leaders need to set business objectives and create systematic ways to measure the business’s progress. Monitoring innovation within the business can help us to understand whether employees feel included as well as whether there is diversity of thought. 


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Be a champion and mentor 

Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be left up to the human resources department or transformation committee – it should be led by champions within the top leadership team. When business leaders sponsor and mentor people from wide-ranging backgrounds, they are setting examples for inclusion. We should also insist on hearing diverse voices in the business. Many people from marginalised or formerly excluded groups may fear speaking out, especially if they are a minority in the business. 

Celebrate diversity 

Diversity and inclusion doesn’t mean becoming blind to differences in thinking, outlook, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. It means creating an environment where people can celebrate who they are. Each person should feel as though the perspectives and insights they bring to the table are valued and respected – it is in this diversity that our businesses can become stronger and more innovative. 

Don’t shy away from difficult conversations

To create a diverse and inclusive workplace, we need to create spaces where people can engage in difficult conversations. While it is tempting to avoid the elephants in the room, having the courage to speak openly can diffuse many tensions in the workplace. Transparency can help us to resolve conflicts in a more constructive way and to foster mutual understanding and respect. 

Focus on psychological safety

The term ‘psychological safety’, coined by Amy Edmondson of Harvard, refers to “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. In such a workplace, each person feels they can bring their full self to work and share their opinions, thoughts and ideas without fear of being ignored, shut down or punished for mistakes. Steps towards creating psychological safety including normalising vulnerability and demonstrating care for each team member as a person, not just a worker or colleague. 

Diversity and inclusion—levers for better business performance 

Diversity and inclusion are moral and legal imperatives in South Africa, given our country’s history of systemised exclusion. But there is also a great deal of research which shows genuinely diverse and inclusive businesses financially outperform their less diverse peers. Diversity and inclusion should thus also be a strategic imperative for businesses with ambitions to grow and thrive. 


Katlego began her professional career as an Industrial Engineer. As MD at Idea Engineers, she has pinned her colours to the mast of sustainability early, to forge an impact agency that creates purpose-led marcoms work for commercial and societal success. The principles of purpose-driven growth and inclusion are fundamental tenets of her philosophy. An unrelenting commitment to execution and her deep experience are brought to bear on the leading brands in the agency’s portfolio.

Find more tips on creating a diverse and inclusive workplace in Top HR Leaders:

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