by Soni Bhattacharya


Two years ago, I was in Mumbai running our signature programme on Emotional Intelligence for a group of senior managers of India's largest ITes firm. It was a great group - intelligent, articulate, full of humour.

Midway through day 1, a lady who also led the Diversity & Inclusion agenda for the company for that location spoke proudly about a great achievement - they had breached a Diversity target that was set for them by the CEO, making them the most "diverse" location for the organisation. At 33%, this was a huge achievement and had taken the team many years of work to achieve.

We all applauded the result, feeling great about it.

During the afternoon break, I overheard two other managers discussing some changes in their teams. "I have now three new "diversities" who have joined my team on this critical project", said one. "Oh, that's not easy - makes you worry when the "diversities" will pick up the rope," sympathised the other.

"Don't worry, I know how to handle this. For two years they are pushing "diversities" on us like this. No point arguing. We just make sure that the "diversities" stay busy on the sidelines."


Needless to say, the two managers were male. And this is not about them or their attitudes, not some feminist rant about the unfairness and biases prevailing in the world.

But the word "diversities", which was used to describe women colleagues. Funny, in a way. Deeply disturbing in many others, since it demonstrated how casually the men were ready to discount women in their midst, and how insincere they were about the ongoing D&I efforts their organisation was trying to champion.

All of us have faced discrimination in life. In the more politically correct corporate environments we operate in today, the discrimination is rarely explicit. But we all know that it is there. We are labelled "diversities" like some exotic animal to be patronised and subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) undermined, and to be considered threats to the traditional male turf. Women are the proverbial "other" here, and like all others, end up being looked at with a mix of suspicion and disdain.

Diversity is just a number

The fact is that this perception of the "other" is as old as humanity itself. The biases are universal, often unconscious and innate, and also flow in different ways. And I will expand the canvas to mention that it is not just about gender, but also about nationality (something I have seen working with clients across 10 countries), ethnicity, race, religion, generation, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability and on various other grounds.

The irony of course is that many of the clients I speak of have invested serious time, energy and money to develop diverse work forces and encourage cultures that respect and include people who are different. Many have excellent numbers to show for their efforts as well.

But as anyone who has ever encountered bias and discrimination will tell, that number means nothing if the supporting culture does enhance and enrich the work forces with the right beliefs, views and attitudes. Diversity, without the culture of Inclusion, is just a number.

Designing the alternative

Ever since that experience in Mumbai, I have been thinking of how we can seriously make a dent to change the existing beliefs and values, mindsets and attitudes. We have championed the cause internally, and have also designed and delivered many programmes and workshops addressing the challenges and opportunities. We have applied processes and tools, made participants paint and act, challenged them and encouraged them, and discovered alternatives that can and have worked.

One thing I have always felt is that many of our efforts are by design exclusionary - we rarely dive deep to understand the basis of the biases, empathise with the biased to appreciate their points of view, unearth the causes of worry and hostility that lead to discrimination. To put it bluntly, in most (not all) of our efforts, we work with the discriminated - women, millennials, the differently abled, and try to help them change their attitudes. However, we tend to overlook the other halves in these equations - those who discriminate.

So, when my colleagues started working on Design Thinking, with its focus on Empathy to understand and reframe Problems (and opportunities), I saw an opportunity to apply the powerful process to our work in the space of D&I. And we launched our new programme, "Diversity, by Design" earlier with a team of managers who work with a Silicon Valley based IT company.

By engaging, REALLY engaging with different stakeholders, by looking at the world through eyes of different people (especially someone whose attitudes, behaviors and actions we want to change) threw up some incredibly exciting ideas and solutions.

We designed questionnaires, collected responses, created Personas and Journey Maps and Empathy Maps to define the right problems to focus on. These included the basic and backgrounds of many behaviors that act as barriers to Inclusion. And then through expertly moderated brainstorming sessions, we came up with some brilliant new ideas on how to tackle these barriers, ranging from actions that will dramatically alter thinking to processes and rewards programmes.

"Diversity, by Design"

We have often seen that team Diversity leads to great Design. We have now successfully discovered that great Diversity can be achieved through Design Thinking!

The "Diversity, by Design" programme is a two-day fully experiential journey from introspection to innovation. We bring to the table a team of experienced Design Thinking experts who are veterans in training and consulting with diverse clients which have given us a leadership position in the space. These champions run participants through the high impact process of Design Thinking through the powerful 'learning by doing' approach, focusing on real work rather than theory. And we add dollops of excitement through our unique touch - ARTS-based methods and tools that augment the experience and enhance the learning through simulations and metaphors.

If true Diversity is to be developed in an organisation to lead to an Inclusive culture and environment, Design Thinking is the way forward. And as a woman and D&I consultant and speaker, I know how important and impactful this is. I am delighted and proud to launch the "Diversity, by Design" programme for our clients today.

for more information, please write to us on info@thepaintedsky.com 

Look forward with excitement.