EP17: Keeping DE&I Strategies Sustainable (with Sandra D'Souza, Founder/CEO, Ellect)

Welcome to All-In Recruitment. A thought-provoking, insightful series of podcasts. This series takes us on an insightful journey into understanding DE&I strategies, what this means for the modern space of recruitment, and how using tools and technologies can enhance your employer brand to be aligned with such strategies.

Watch on YouTube at this link.


The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Lydia: Welcome to the All-In Recruitment podcast by Manatal, where we explore best practices, learnings, and trends with leaders in the recruitment space. 

If you like our content, please subscribe to our channels on YouTube and Spotify to stay tuned for weekly episodes. My name is Lydia, and joining us today is Sandra D’Souza, Founder and CEO of Ellect, based in Sydney, Australia. 

Hi, Sandra. Thank you for joining us.

Sandra: It's an absolute pleasure to be here.

Journey towards advocacy

Lydia: Sandra, you have had an extensive career of more than two decades now. And your background is in finance. Then you moved on to social entrepreneurship. 

I understand that it was in this period that you'd become a strong advocate for gender equality and women in business. So, tell us about your journey towards advocating gender equality.

Sandra: It was always interesting to hear about my background being relayed by someone else. I actually founded an international digital marketing agency 10 years ago. So, I took a step from finance to marketing and got my knowledge around all things to do with entrepreneurship. 

But this journey I started with advocating gender equality also started 20 years ago when I joined an international NGO as a volunteer. And quite quickly, they somehow recruited me, and we had elections. And so I became the state president here in Australia, advocating gender equality with the state government. 

And then, not long after that, I was part of the International Executive Board, where the organization is affiliated with the United Nations. So, I was fortunate to see, from the grassroots level, all the way to the international level all the various gender equality activities around the world. And across all various types of research, and also seeing the change over the last 20 years. 

And when I had an opportunity for my business to be acquired in 2018, I thought, “this is a space I want to be in.” And it was a time when I felt like being in this space for so long that people were beginning to listen. So, not long after the #MeToo campaign and around Black Lives Matter. What was happening was that people who knew about my work - I'm talking about men - they used to say, “yes, Sandra's off to a secret business,” because I was volunteering. 

So, I always have to juggle both my corporate career and my work in gender equality. But they started asking me questions and wanting to know and understand more about it. And it made me realize that there is a growing awareness, and it was time to really accelerate the work that I'm doing. And that's what led me into this journey. 

Conversations around DE&I

Lydia:  You would have seen many changes, or you would have seen how the conversations have evolved. And how has it evolved?

Sandra: Absolutely. So for, let's say, the first 15 years, it was very much that you don't get any mention in publicity. It's like the best-kept secret. Nobody wants to talk about gender equality. Not everybody understood the issue. And it was a lot of the conferences and events, it was women talking about women about gender equality issues. 

What has changed in the last five years is the businesses embracing it. Men talking about men also, who would advocate for gender equality but couldn't really talk about it openly. We're beginning to talk about it openly and also implementing that in business. 

ESG has also helped with the push. And certainly, I think the #MeToo campaign was a catalyst for the first step of awareness. And so, going from no one talking about it in the mainstream to now being very much mainstream. That has been a significant change, and seeing the younger generation also calling out bad behavior and not accepting inappropriate behavior has been a real capital A for a change.

Lydia: Ellect is focused on ESG, particularly, and how businesses can achieve their ESG goals in DE&I. Is it been three years now?

Sandra: Yeah. So, those three years, I can't believe the time has flown so quickly. Ellect is part of the ESG, but it’s very much part of the ‘S’ of the ESG goal. And the focus initially, over the three years, we started off with supplier diversity, which was part of the pandemic, with all the chaos around the supply chain. 

And there was that focus of, “let's look at local businesses, let's look at local suppliers, let's look at a lot of local businesses that have diverse backgrounds.” And then also supporting gender equality. So, we also look at Ellect Stars, which is about pushing for gender equality in business leadership. Both are important elements as part of the ESG goals.

The Impact of the Pandemic on DE&I practices

Lydia: The past three years have been critical. We've seen communities and businesses enter the pandemic period and also come out of it. Now we're in the post-pandemic. So, you've gone through that wave. What are some key learnings you've had in these years, particularly about around action on gender equality in business?

Sandra: It certainly has been an interesting time, and the shift in the demand for diversity was very much accelerated. I will also put it, there's still a lot of work to do, but what has been interesting in terms of the key learnings is how much the pandemic has forced businesses into what we call processes or environment, but to think about alternative ways of doing business. 

So, I talked about diversity from the supplier, but it also brought on people working from home. Women need flexibility at work. And I know, we've with my colleagues, and they're part of an international NGO. In various discussions, we say that in an organization, we need to introduce flexible working hours, and working from home, and companies would push back and say, “oh, it's not possible.” Companies won't be productive. And guess what happened? When everybody had to work from home, no business fell apart. In fact, they saw greater productivity, and things just kept going. 

“So, what the pandemic has actually shown us is that the entire workforces can work from home, and that doesn't kill a business. And so it has made that transition for flexible workplaces much more feasible and has been implemented. It allows that diversity piece to come in.” 

What the pandemic has shown us is that we can work in a hybrid model, a flexible model; we can take into account the needs of staff and still be able to run a business and be productive. 

And when you also throw in, more recently, the Great Resignation, it's very hard to attract talent and very hard to keep talent. What it shows is that businesses are no longer in that position, dare I say power, that they do need to try and make their environment attractive for top talent to be able to come to their company. How they do that is to offer an environment that makes them be able to balance work and life.

Lydia: Now that we've seen the effects of the pandemic on how organizations approach or view flexibility in the workspace and also take into consideration some needs, especially for women in the workplace, and the entire workforce. 

How have you gone about raising awareness for DE&I, especially now post-pandemic? Have you seen any changes?

Sandra: Well, this is also part of the work that Ellect is doing. We started off with a bit of research. We went through all the listed companies on the Australian Stock Exchange in NASDAQ and some on the London Stock Exchange. And what we wanted to see is how much gender diversity has been achieved in the senior leadership and on the boards. 

So we selected four basic criteria, and we rate them and they get the point if they have a woman, at least one woman in the CEO or CFO role. They get the point if there is a woman boarding chair, they get the point if there’s at least 25% of women in boards, and they get the point if there’s 25% of women in the senior leadership team. 

And if they achieved three or more points, we consider them eligible for a leg star. So, I'm going to ask you.  How many companies do you think have achieved three stars or more? It’s over 2,100 companies on the ASX and over 8,000 on NASDAQ, and over 500 on London Stock Exchange.

Lydia: Maybe 30 to 40% of that? 

Sandra: Less than 5%. And we're in 2022. These are listed companies. All of them would have DE&I policy in there and claim to do a lot of things but are they actually achieving DE&I in these organizations? They haven't. 

So, that is the awareness that we're trying to introduce for DE&I. It is to start off with gender equality, and if a company has achieved three or more of just the four criteria, we consider them to have achieved gender equality in business from the top. 

And and that's how we're trying to approach this. Because in 2022, with all the policy and the awareness, and also the movement, we're still seeing, you know, you thought that if 40%, but only less than 5% have got both.

Lydia: Is this shocking to many people when you bring it up?

Sandra: It's really funny that you say that because I get that. They'll say, “Oh, my God, but then I'm also not surprised.” I was the same. I said, “I'm across all the research. I thought Australia was really quite ahead with the work and the stock exchange.” 

There is governance reporting to say, what are you doing in having women on boards? So, I know that there is some growth in achieving that. But, I was quite surprised if you combined this with having women CEOs, women in senior leadership, and boards, actually, not many companies have achieved that.

Challenges in Implementing DE&I plans

Lydia: Obviously, there's so much work to be done. And there are clearly many challenges that organizations face. Either they're addressing them, or they're not. So, in your experience, what are some challenges that these companies are facing in terms of the implementation or action around policies to support diversity and attract diverse talent?

Sandra: So, this was the question I wanted to know, from doing that research, and what makes these less than 5% of the companies different from the others? And so what I've done is that I've reached out to those CEOs. And I've been interviewing them, and I'm actually writing a book about it.

Lydia: When's it coming out?

Sandra: We're looking at February 2023. But I can give you some insight in terms of what these CEOs have told me about how they did it/ It didn't matter about the industry, whether it's male-dominated, female-dominated. It didn't matter whether it was a small business -  10s to 1000s. And it doesn't matter if the CEO is a founding CEO or a newly hired CEO who has jumped into the role, as long as the CEO has put that as part of their vision of wanting diversity and inclusion in their business, starting with the top. 

That's how they voted that was consistent across the line. I've spoken to CEOs who say it is that they come into it, and they see all-white male board members and all-white male leadership team. And they said, “I want 50/50.” They actually said that, and like I said, it doesn't matter about the size of the company. Whether it is their personal value or not, they say we can't still be operating at this level. One way or another, they have pushed for that change. 

And then they do need to try and get the support of the board and the leadership team, and it could also be changing board members and things like that. But it's the CEO who has been pushing it. And that's what I've found. The main difference with other CEOs who have said, “yes, I want to do it, but it's really hard,” or “we are implementing it, but we're not getting the results.” But that's the main difference. The ones who are getting results are the ones who actually truly put that as part of the vision for the business.

Sustainable DE&I, Starting From The Top

Lydia: Interesting, because many organizations want to ensure that their DE&I initiatives or programs seep through the entire company. Many of them have even begun implementing non-discriminatory policies, diversity events, and even training on unconscious bias. And these are all great first steps. 

But there is still the challenge of embedding DE&I into business practices and processes. So, what might be some ways for organizations to work towards this?

Sandra: I think it's fantastic to have these policies and the training that you've described. And they're important to set up the framework and the guidelines for how everyone should behave or how to encourage them to include diversity and inclusion. But nothing speaks louder than actions.

And the actions do need to come from the top. I remember,  20 years ago, where you work, go through the whole exercise with the whole company, put in your vision, your mission, and say, “hey, we want to do this, but nobody in the company believes it.” And if the culture is not inclusive, how do you bring in diversity? 

So, you really need the culture. Where do you get the culture from? It needs to be driven from the top. And so, you need to really have it as part of the vision, but also have the CEO driving the actions, to say, “this is happening, we need to embed it into our business practice.”  

“Let's start with the diversity from hiring from the top. If you don't see diverse leaders, the diverse leaders don't hire diverse managers. So, that's where I think the action speaks louder. And that's how you actually start getting some change, to practice. They have to do what they say they're doing.”   

And it doesn't become just a PowerPoint presentation or a PDF document that sits in the company library, and nobody refers to it. It's actual actions and their various ways, trading and all that, as I said, they're just as important. But you need to see from the top. If you're talking about diversity yet you look up, and you're still seeing no diversity in the senior leadership team or in the board of directors, then that means that companies aren't really fully embedding what they're talking about, what they're preaching into the top-level management.

Lydia: And once it's embedded, there is also the responsibility to keep it going.  So, what are some ways that HR leaders and business leaders can ensure that their DE&I strategies and policies are sustainable in the long run?

Sandra: It's about creating habits.

“It's about making sure that you have what I call a system or a rhythm. So that everybody has these habits of doing one of the actions that are related to DE&I, and then building from that.” 

We've partnered with Cred,  a software that, in simple terms, is really meant to help people to build up good actions. And very simplifying. If I give you an example, and this is also talking to other organizations, one of the things we'll say with cred is, “let's have a buddy.” 

“Let's have a mentor.” Booster, female mentor type of thing. “Let's celebrate one of the items on the diversity calendar.” And just have that as part of the action that everybody does something towards. And by doing that, it will help the employees to see that the leaders and HR are fully committed to what they're saying about DE&I that they are really trying to change a culture to make it inclusive, and it's driven from the top.

Lydia: Moving into HR and talent strategies, a big part of ensuring this diversity in your hiring is also to ensure the creation of recruitment teams that are diverse. So, what might be some factors that leaders of recruitment agencies or even heads of recruitment teams should think of when they structure a diverse team of recruiters?

Sandra: I'm so glad that you're asking this question because it is human nature that we hire the people we like, right? So, without diversity in the recruitment team, there's a tendency that we just hire people whom we’re used to, whom we like, who look like us. And then we just keep this whole cycle of hiring. 

It is very important that the agency leaders and the heads of recruitment must have this diverse team when it comes to recruiting. And that's one step. There’s another action to say, yes, we believe in diversity inclusion, and we will make sure that the recruitment team is actually of diverse backgrounds. 

“It’s not only having that diversity as a recruitment team. It is also ensuring that the language of the job ads are neutral. Or, that they suit so for example, if they're looking to have more women in certain roles, just to help with the balance. Then make sure that the job ad shows the culture, that it's far more inclusive, and then it has a flexible working environment, just as an example. Neutral language is really important.” 

And also, to start off with just having very objective hiring criteria, so that the diverse teams and the recruitment team all agree that that's how we're going to do it, or they're going to do it.  

I find blind resumes help as well because it's just human nature that you look at the name, you look at the age, you look at various things. If you take them out and research, backed this information up, when you take away those details, more people with diversity tend to get hired through that process as well.

What Is Intersectionality?

Lydia: We've heard quite a bit about the term intersectionality lately, especially in conversations around DE&I. How would you define intersectionality?

Sandra: I think I'm a great example of that. I love this word because it is, again, this whole thing about raising awareness. 

So, intersectionality, for me, is a broader definition of systemic discrimination in multiple forms. Take me for example. I was in corporate at a very young age. Most management team members are much older, in their 50s, and I was in my 20s.  I was a woman and also Brown. And so that is the intersectionality, part of it. 

But then you can also be extended in terms of your gender identity and socio-economic status as well. I had a single mom who raised me and worked very hard. We weren't really fortunate, but I was just lucky, with scholarships and with hard work, to get myself out of that cycle and to embark on this amazing career journey for myself. But not everybody can do that. Not everybody automatically gets a certain opportunity. We need to recognize the differences. 

Lydia:  It's been suggested that the use of pronouns creates a more inclusive workplace. So what are your thoughts on this?

Sandra: I think it's fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. Because what has happened, and I think it really had accelerated in the last 12 months, especially when it started to get introduced on LinkedIn, is that we need to show our pronouns, that we have moved this discussion, this awareness, into the mainstream. 

And so I see since then, in the professional setting, and LinkedIn posts, and also in personal setting in, let's say, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, people saying, I would prefer “they” as a pronoun, feel comfortable and not be mocked and not being criticized or isolated from this announcement, and allowing people to be themselves. 

I can't hide my skin color. But if it is not an inclusive society, we can't hide it. We have to hide our true selves. And so it does lead towards inclusivity. And pronouns are great first step to bring that into mainstream conversation.

How Not Using HR Tech Impacts Recruitment

Lydia: Let's discuss the use of HR technology to support diversity. A PwC study showed that 58% of companies use HR technology to find, attract and retain top talent. So, how might technology help to ensure diversity in hiring practices? 

Sandra: I can tell you how not using technology doesn't help.

“I can tell you how not using technology doesn't help. If you don't use technology, what are you leaving it to? You're leaving it to unconscious bias. You're leaving it to a subjective process, you're leaving it to potentially using your own network, rather than seeking out attracting top talent. That's what technology helps overcome, these barriers when it comes to really recruit diverse and top talent.” 

Because it allows the companies to break out of their small circle, and reach out to the network and find the top talent that suits them. And using tools, like you said, in as what we discussed, just then blind resumes, and really see people in their abilities, and to be able to give them the opportunity to apply.

Lydia: Moving in that direction, how should recruiters and HR leaders prepare to adopt diversity in hiring?

Sandra: I'm just going to give out based on the research that I've done. They really need to go and seek out where the technology allows them to do that. And to seek out those niche platforms as well. Let me give you an example. There's a company that I was an advisor to wanting to attract more women data analysts. But it wasn’t easy. And part of what we did was with technology, such as Manatal, that you could reach out to specific platforms, which people from a certain country tend to use as a job search board to find them. 

So, there were data analysts in Australia. There are actually immigrants from China and Iran, who have strong data engineering backgrounds, and they normally wouldn't necessarily be in the main job sites. Or, they're not easily found. And this is taking a proactive approach to finding them. 

And so this is where I believe that the technology will make it easier for the recruiters to reach out and find the appropriate candidates because it allows for that little bit more of the proactiveness of the suitable candidates.

Lydia: And there's also the role of employer branding. Now, if DE&I and gender equality and everything else has already seeped through an organization and every aspect of it, it has to come out through the brand. It has to be seen through its voice. What, in your opinion, might be the role of employer branding to attract and keeping diverse candidates today?

Sandra: Well, you're absolutely spot on. That's the reason why we have Ellect Stars, because we want that to be the proof for employers, to show that this has proven that we're committed to gender equality.  

And gender equality is not just about gender equality. What I've seen in the research is that when companies are committed to diversity, and inclusivity, they achieve gender equality. And so that is part of the employer branding. There are many kinds of accreditations out there by different companies. 

Employers need that sort of accreditation to stand out and to show potential candidates of diverse backgrounds. We have to prove that we're not just talking about it. It's not just policy. Not only do we have the culture, we have diversity at the top level.  

And that's where I think it's important for employers to showcase it. And that's because it's important that companies succeed by having great talent. And you also want to retain that talent.

Lydia: I like how we've gone from senior leadership, and representation in the board to managers to practices in the organization. And finally, moving into what you project your company to be, especially now, when people are looking out for all these aspects. We also have Gen Zs coming in and looking at all these things in terms of value. 

So, thank you very much, Sandra, for your time and insight. If anyone wants to look out for you, where can they connect with you?

Sandra: Thank you so much, Lydia. I really enjoyed having this conversation with you. And well done on putting this podcast together. 

They can look for us on LinkedIn, as well as our website. I also have my profile on LinkedIn, which is quite active. But you can reach me through our website as well.  It’s https://www.ellect.biz/.  

Lydia: And we have been in conversation with Sandra De Souza, Founder and CEO of Ellect, based in Sydney, Australia. If you like our content, please subscribe to our channels and stay tuned for more weekly episodes of All-In Recruitment.

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