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Q&A: Diversity and inclusion challenges in France

In our latest Q&A, Pauline Lecoursonnois, an engager for EOS at Federated Hermes, talks to Inès Dauvergne, an industry expert on diversity and inclusion, about how companies can address inequities related to the racial or ethnic origins of employees, focusing on the challenges in France.

Fast reading

  • In France the collection of personal data indicating racial or ethnic origin is prohibited
  • Companies can conduct surveys where employees respond on a voluntary or anonymous basis
  • They can provide training on unconscious biases, particularly for staff involved in recruitment

The death of George Floyd while in police custody in the US ignited an anti-racism movement that spread quickly around the world. We have seen renewed concerns about poor representation of racial/ethnic minorities in business, particularly in senior positions, and the role that companies may play in perpetuating inequities in their workforces and in society, through their products, services and customer practices, and their public policy actions.

Multiple studies have demonstrated clear links between diversity and greater profitability for organisations. In May 2020 consultancy McKinsey found that companies with executive teams ranking in the top quartile for ethnic diversity were 36% more likely to have above-market profitability than their less-diverse peers. McKinsey also noted that companies that already saw diversity and inclusion as a strength were likely to leverage this to bounce back from the pandemic more quickly. Diversity is not just a moral obligation, it is an imperative for employees’ wellbeing, for companies’ improved performance and for greater economic prosperity.

As consultancy BCG noted in a 2019 survey, diversity plus inclusion is the source of real value. To capture the real value of a diverse workforce, companies must create an organisational culture that welcomes everyone and encourages their participation. In its study, BCG identified five key elements necessary for companies to become more inclusive: commit at the top, enlist frontline leaders, amplify best practice, never tolerate bad behaviour, and measure and track.

However, in France the processing and collection of personal data directly or indirectly indicating  the racial or ethnic origins of an individual is prohibited. This can make it more challenging for companies to fully address this business imperative. In this discussion, we will explore some of the ways French companies can identify and address inequities in their workforce while promoting a diverse and inclusive environment.

Pauline Lecoursonnois, EOS: In your view, is it possible to address inequities without measuring them?

Inès Dauvergne: French companies already measure several aspects of diversity with a focus on age, gender and disability. In my experience, the most important thing for any meaningful progress is leadership, with a CEO who takes personal ownership of the agenda. The commitment must be clearly communicated, with an action plan and dedicated resources. Once this has been established as a strategic priority, measurement will be essential to get a baseline that accurately reflects the current situation, to set goals, to track the effectiveness of action plans and to ensure accountability.

PL: How can French companies identify and address inequities related to the ethnic or racial origins of individuals?

ID: In France, it is illegal to hold information relating to racial or ethnic origin, sexual orientation or the political/religious/philosophical affiliation of individuals. Even though this legal framework makes it more challenging to measure the diversity of origins than in other countries, there are some tools companies can use. A company can lawfully:

  • Compare dummy job applications from people with names of French origin versus names of non-European origin.
  • Conduct surveys where employees respond on a voluntary and anonymous basis about their feelings of belonging to a minority or their perception of discrimination in the workplace. These surveys can also include factual data about them and their ancestors, such as the nationality, country of birth or academic background. The Club 21e Siècle, for example, a non-profit association with the goal of promoting diversity, has been developing such tools to measure the representation and inclusion of employees with a diversity of origins and from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Conduct studies comparing the family/first name of employees, their position in the hierarchy, and recruitment practices.
  • Use self-assessment tools to help employees identify where they might have unconscious bias associated with the background of a person (eg social, cultural, ethnic or academic background), such as the one I co-developed.

A survey conducted by BCG showed that formal training that helps employees identify their “unconscious” biases and understand their impact is one of the most effective initiatives. Evidence suggests that bias could be wired into human nature, as it appears to stem from inherent mental ‘shortcuts’ that help our brains rapidly recognise patterns. Unconscious bias training will help to address the deep-rooted cultural and organisational issues that diverse groups face in their day-to-day working lives.

PL: Could you provide concrete examples of approaches that have delivered results?

ID: In France, some companies approach this subject with criteria based on the social and academic background of candidates. They work to diversify the pipeline of candidates by recruiting from public universities (“universités”), which have greater diversity than private colleges (“écoles privées”), and no longer focus on a limited number of schools. These companies have been able to leverage different ways of thinking and working. Other companies have established partnerships with organisations representing disadvantaged areas. The goal is to identify talent that might otherwise have been self-censored by an individual who does not have the network to access some job offers.

Companies can also provide training on biases that might lead people to stereotype some groups, and training on the importance of having a diverse workforce. This is particularly important for staff involved in recruitment. In 2017, it became mandatory for companies with more than 300 employees to provide training on non-discrimination for any employee participating in recruitment (ie human resources and managers) and this must be done at least once every five years. Obviously, complying with the law is not enough to create a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Inès Dauvergne is an independent consultant, with 15 years’ experience of addressing diversity and inclusion matters. In 2018 she co-founded the #MeandYouToo app, a self-evaluating tool on stereotypes linked to gender, religion, disability, sexism, origin or inclusion.

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