Sharita Daya on DEI and the importance of inclusivity

30th Jun 2021

Sharita Daya, DEI consultant and coach, shares her thoughts on how companies can be more inclusive every day

In this episode of The Creative Culture Podcast, we are delighted to speak with Sharita Daya, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant and coach, based in South Africa, and to hear her insights on her DEI journey, and why inclusivity is absolutely critical to implement successful initiatives. 

Creative Culture: Hello and welcome to the Creative Culture Podcast Interview series. Today we’re delighted to be speaking to Sharita Daya, diversity, equity and Inclusion Consultant coach coach based in South Africa. Today, Sharita will share insights on her D&I journey and how inclusivity is absolutely critical to implement successful initiatives. You can find out more on our website, So welcome Sharita, and thank you again so much for your time today. To begin with, perhaps you could tell us a little more about yourself, your career, your current role, and also about what brought you to working in leadership, diversity and inclusion.

Sharita: Hi Marine. So firstly, thank you for having me on the Creative Culture Podcast and for taking the time to talk to me today. And thanks for that lovely introduction. So I’m Sharita Daya Diversity and Equity Inclusion Advisor and coach. So I think prior to me taking on this work full time, it’s worth noting that I was in corporate for quite some time, over two decades actually, and over the years at international and South African firms, I was quite involved in DI program design and I also held executive mandate for chairing DI committees globally. In many cases, I oversaw the execution of programs as well across global markets. And I think what that really gave me was quite a unique perspective as to what was working in South Africa and a global perspective as well from a comparative base as to what was working well in South Africa and what was not in terms of my different exposure. So what drew me to the work, I think Marine was as a woman of colour, growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid and starting my career during those early democratic days of corporate South Africa.

DI was a constant topic in my life and it was a very pervasive one in my personal and professional life. So I really started getting involved in DI efforts quite early in my career, but it was quite later in my professional life. I think that I started to really make sense of my own experiences and of others like me and I started to interrogate the patterns and themes which were emerging. Now, the most common pattern that I found from my lived experiences and interactions with professionals and mentoring and coaching people for well over two decades and across geographies was that even in environments with progressive diversity and equity policies and impressive representation stats, most environments were not initially designed for everyone to belong, right? They were designed for this prototype ideal worker. And this is not really an inclusive prototype for companies to thrive. They also need cultures of inclusion and belonging and this is what really attracts and keeps diverse talent and creates these innovative environments that can outperform their peers. So it was really drawing on these learnings and experiences that I followed my calling to DEI work. And in early 2020 I founded my DI consultancy, drawing on my vast corporate experience globally and locally in South Africa and on my own lived experience.

So I now focus my efforts on creating these inclusive environments and really interrupting the barriers and biases that continue to hold us back.

Creative Culture: Brilliant. Well, that sounds amazing, and I know you’ve partially answered that question already, but I’d love to better understand how being from South Africa has influenced your perception of D&I and if there are any aspects of D&I in South Africa that you feel are universal and can be applied to a range of cultures and situations.

Sharita: Yeah, sure. Like I mentioned, I worked in both South African organisations and in large global organisations. So while I have that international perspective, my views are primarily informed by the South African lens. Now, I guess it’s worth maybe taking a step back and talking about South Africa in the early days of when it became a democracy, and South Africa officially became a democracy in 9094. And at that time, there was a strong focus on addressing the inequalities that were created by the apartheid system. And this was primarily addressed through the implementation of equity focus policy and legislation. And rightfully so right? Because discrimination and racism were previously legal under the apartheid regime, and it created vast social and economic divides in South Africa. And now, with almost 24 years of experience behind us, I think we can reflect critically and evaluate what has worked well in areas that still need some development. So our employment equity policies have certainly come a long way in addressing representation in organisations and creating opportunities for equal participation. But we have also come to realise that diversity representation is the start, it’s not the destination. And this is a universal theme I see emerging in the global context too, across cultures and geographies.

What we also need to address now, in addition to policies and legislation, is how discrimination and bias presents itself in everyday interactions and within the culture of an environment. This is what I refer to as the invisible barriers which persist and keep marginalised groups back. I think there’s not really a reckoning, so to speak, that we need to move beyond the numbers to creating these cultures of inclusion and belonging, where differences are valued and rewarded and where everyone can belong beyond the tick the box exercise. Thankfully, there’s a lot more evidence and research available now that supports this view. There’s a really great study by Harvard Business Review, amongst many other notable publications, that shows that it’s not diversity alone that makes companies stand out right? It’s companies that can harness this diversity and create cultures of inclusion and belonging, and these are the companies that significantly outperform their peers.

Creative Culture: That’s brilliant. And I guess going back to what you said just now and the fact that you’ve worked for such a range of organisations over the past couple of decades, have you noticed any sort of common struggles when it comes to demonstrating the value of D&I and the importance of making it a priority for businesses. And I think maybe specifically how you said that diversity was just in itself a starting point, but not the solution or the end result.

Sharita: Right. So I think there’s been a lot of changes over the last decade in the field, but more so in the last two years. In the last two years, if you have to look at what’s been happening on a global scale, I liken it to a microwave effect. Right. There has been this renewed focus on social justice and social justice advocacy. And we’ve seen this over the last two years in terms of the focus on movements like Black Lives Matter movements and the MeToo movement and the Times Up movement. So there’s been a lot of focus now on actually asking ourselves what’s working, what’s not, and why do we need such a renewed focus on DI efforts in organisations? And again, thankfully, research is now quite extensive because we have history and we have data and we can reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t. So the research is telling us quite consistently that diversity is important, but it’s not enough. And it’s just the start. And we need to now create these environments of inclusion and it’s these environments that can outperform their peers and they can adapt and they can innovate. Catalyst, I’m not sure if your aware catalyst is a global NGO that’s dedicated to DI, it’s also released quite important findings in this regard.

So the empirical evidence is really showing us that there’s this tangible relationship between inclusive and diverse workplaces and bottom line. Now, the Pandemic, I think, has also really been shining a spotlight as to why inclusion, belonging and having these healthy workplaces is so important. Because we’ve seen that it’s the companies that can’t adapt in this very volatile and uncertain world that we operate in, are really battling to survive. And over the last couple of years, we also seen highly publicised cases of companies that don’t get DI right. And the fact that this hasn’t bottom line and a couple come to mind. There was a case of H&M a couple of years ago, Starbucks, about two years ago here in South Africa. We had a very publicised case, the retail and pharmaceutical group, that involved a Unilever product. And we’ve seen how these companies now responded well by making DI a strategic priority. And why I mentioned that is that I think that companies are realising that it’s important, they’re realising that it’s a strategic priority and it hurts bottom line if you don’t get it right. But what I’m still seeing in terms of struggles is in the implementation.

So there’s an awareness that it’s important that companies are still battling with how to implement effectively. And there’s two things that are coming across and that come to mind for me that I’m seeing as constant themes. The first is that there’s still a misperception that diversity and inclusion is the same thing and it’s not right. It’s all well and good to have impressive diversity representation numbers, but if you have diversity alone and you don’t have an environment of inclusion that can harness this diverse workforce effectively, then companies just can’t retain talent. They can’t attract new diverse talent, they can’t innovate and thrive. So diversity, I usually say diversity is a fact, right? And it can be addressed through hiring and policy changes, whereas inclusion and belonging require a longer term commitment to cultural transformation. I think this is where companies need to make a mindset that shift, that DI work is not an event. Right? It is a long term process that they need to commit to. And the second theme I’m seeing with implementation coming across more and more is companies need to treat DI as a strategic priority. And like with any strategic priority, it needs resources, it needs budget, it needs authority, it needs accountability.

It’s not the job of a select few to be responsible for DEI. Right. I think we see this in organisations where it’s very tempting to say, we’ve hired a DEI person and this person is going to just solve for everything. It’s not the job of a person. It is a wide reaching strategic priority and everyone needs to commit to this and leaders need to be held accountable. So I think those are the two big themes that I see coming out. It’s not so much the awareness. Yes, there are some companies that are still battling with, is this important or not? But the vast majority realise that DI is important. I see the strikers now more in the execution.

Creative Culture: I completely agree with you there. And I think going back to that point, exactly how do you feel companies can move on from that awareness stage in order to implement actionable processes in a way that truly demystifies inclusion and makes it a lot more practical? And in other words, how can companies be intentionally inclusive every day?

Sharita: I love the question. I’m so glad you asked that, because a lot of my efforts is focused on demystifying what it means to be inclusive every day in very simple and practical ways. Right? And having worked in so many organisations and coached and mentored and interviewed countless people, the common theme I see coming out is that people really want to do better, but they lack these practical, everyday skills. And inclusion is seen as this big, hairy, big evasive goal. But in reality, an inclusive culture is created in everyday micro actions, right? And these are born from daily interactions. So I often say to leaders, this is where you can start. You can start on these daily interactions and you can start making inclusion very intentional. So practically, inclusive behaviours can most easily be built into everyday language and everyday actions and the most effective, easiest place, so to speak, to do it is a meeting etiquette, right? Because we have meetings everyday, be informal meetings in the corridor, structured big meetings. And these are great opportunities for organisations to start building inclusive behaviours. So some examples I’ve seen that make a huge impact are things like removing exclusionary and stereotype language from the workplace.

Now, what comes to mind is an organisation I worked with a few years back and we ran focus groups to understand the impact of language in creating inclusive environments. And through the focus groups, we called out the use of the word aggressive when describing women’s styles and performance evaluations. And this actually resulted in the organisation taking this on board and said, well, how can we actually be intentional about this now? How can we remove the stereotypes and exclusionary language from our daily interactions? And they launched a program where they offer daily postcards, little snippets for postcards, which they sent out to all their staff every day over a two month period. And they called out the use of these gendered stereotype language and explained why it was limiting and then they offered an alternative word instead to use. So, for example, replacing the word aggressive with assertive, replacing the word emotional with passionate. And these subtle changes in language started making people more aware of how bias creeps into everyday language and it had a massive impact on culture. Another example that comes to mind, where I’ve been personally involved in this program with a large global firm was a new employee buddy system.

And what we had done there was we matched new hires with employees from diverse backgrounds for about a three to six month period depending. And this was not only diversity match in terms of age and race ethnicity language, but also people from different departments with different skill sets. So there was cognitive diversity as well. And the body system was less about the job to be done, but it was more about introducing the new hires to the informal and social networks in the workplace. And it’s those networks that are often overlooked in onboarding, right? But these can have a bigger impact on how people experience the workplace. And what this program really encouraged people to do was to learn more about others from different backgrounds and diverse groups and it helped create this more inclusive welcoming space for new hires. And the third I think I’d leave you with that really stood out for me, was an area that I focus a lot on with companies, particularly large global organisations, is how to hold inclusive meetings. And I think I mentioned this earlier that we’re having meetings all the time, every day, be it formal or informal, being in the corridor.

And these are great opportunities now to actually practice inclusionary behaviour. So a small action that we introduced in a global organisation where we were working with remote groups and people from different cultures, different languages, was to implement a simple system of turn-taking in the meetings, right? It sounds simple, but it was so effective. And August, it was there was a few minutes towards the end of the meeting where there was a turn taking system to ensure that all voices are heard and no one feels left out. And in many cultures, language is quite a barrier. So in this case, I suggest you simple actions, which is just send me to notes beforehand. And it gives people the time to read through the notes in their language or to translate it and write notes and then allow time for people to send comments through after a meeting. Now, in these types of diverse backgrounds and across language barriers and differences, it plays a huge impact on how people feel included and how they can contribute. So I encourage employees to really take this into account and also to apply what we call the no interrupt rule.

And this is a simple thing. It’s when you’re talking to people whose first language is different from yours, just let them finish speaking before you interrupt them, right? And it sounds really simple. And when I talk to companies about implementing this in the daily workplace, there’s these moments where leaders and employees go, AHA, that’s so simple. And I go, AHA, it is, because inclusion is about those simple things. We don’t have to wait to be inclusive, right? We don’t have to wait for some event to happen. We can be intentionally inclusive every day by just thinking about our impact and doing small things. And if we keep doing those things, over time, the repetitive behaviour becomes habit and it becomes habit, it becomes part of your culture. I’ve personally seen this firsthand in organisations where they are so intentional about this and leaders start to role model these inclusive behaviours, what it means to be inclusive, calling out behaviour that’s not inclusive and calling out bias in the moment as it happens has a huge impact and sets the tone for the culture of the entire organisation.

Brilliant. Well, thank you so much for sharing all of these ideas and tips on how to really make the workplace inclusive every day. I think it’s really important to understand that it doesn’t always have to come from the leaders, in that every employee has a role to play and can really contribute in this process. And as the last question, I was wondering if you had any examples of successful organisations or initiatives that have been implemented on the D&I front.

Yeah, sure. I mean, there’s a couple that come to mind and I think these organisations that we can look to who have been through their own struggles, right, and have learned through them. And Starbucks comes to mind. I think I mentioned them earlier that some years back, about two years back, they had their own struggles with the implementation of DEI policies across all of their retail outlets. So in late 2020, they made an announcement that they’d be linking executives pay to the success of inclusion initiatives in addition to diversity initiatives, and that they would also broaden the scope of mentorship programs by linking underrepresented employers to senior leaders. What this really did, Marine, is that it sends a very clear signal that DI is a strategic business priority because it places the DI agenda more firmly onto the scorecards of senior leaders. And earlier on we spoke about some of the struggles in companies with implementing DI and prioritising DI as a strategic priority is one of those things that come out. So the way that Starbucks has been doing it, I think it’s a really great example because they’ve sent this clear signal into the organisation.

I’ve also seen companies that prioritise inclusive policies Spotify explore example let employees take religious holidays that are important to them, rather than forcing a blanket approach. I’ve seen companies that implement inclusion practices into recruitment. So name blind CV’s is becoming more and more popular as an inclusive recruitment strategy and also asking candidates what environment suits them best for interviews. So there’s a tendency to invite potential new recruits for interviews at the place of work of the company, whereas now there’s more of a movement to say, well, actually, what suits you because we’re working in a very workplace is very different today. It’s not a traditional workplace and there are many other factors to consider when you’re interviewing as to how people feel comfortable, where they are more relaxed, et cetera. So I think companies are now starting to open up the field into what works for people. How can we be more inclusionary? Companies like Salesforce and Accenture, where I worked at Accenture for many years, they report their DI programs across multiple metrics, not just on diverse representation hiring numbers, but they also consider intersectional groups, they consider attrition rates, promotion rates, and they regularly undertake focus group surveys to understand how employees are experiencing the workplace and that no one is being unintentionally excluded.

And I think these companies and I call our Salesforce and Accenture specifically because they really understand as well the importance of actively advocating for underrepresented groups sponsorship programs. Mentoring is useful, but I think we’re also kind of progressing from mentoring as well into sponsorships because while mentoring is useful, it’s really sponsorships that are helping to turn the dial for members of underrepresented or marginalised groups. And in summary, I think it’s really the companies that they are prioritising inclusive cultural transformation and who treat DEI as a strategic priority in every aspect of the business that stand out for.

Creative Culture: Me, thank you again for sharing these examples. I think they will definitely be very useful to all of our listeners. So thank you so much for your time again today, Sharita. It’s truly been a pleasure. And for everybody else, thanks for listening. We hope you enjoyed this episode and you’ll find more podcast episodes by visiting our website under our insight section make culture work for you.

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