Dr Rosanna Duncan, Palladium Chief Diversity Officer
Dr Rosanna Duncan is no stranger to casual racism.
“I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know what the word ‘racism’ meant,” she says. “I remember being told by a girl in school that I wasn’t allowed to join in a game on the playground because ‘no blackies were allowed’ to play.” The words may have stung, but what stuck with her through the rest of her life was the teacher’s lack of interest when she complained.
“It was my first, but not last, insight into the pervasive institutional racism we still see to this day.”
Born to a Black Jamaican father and a white Irish mother in Cardiff, Wales, Duncan grew up in a politically aware household. Debates on racial inequality and xenophobia were common around the dinner table.
While Duncan experienced less racism from her peers as she got older and attended more multicultural schools, the undercurrent from teachers and authority figures continued, leading her to veer away from an education in social policy as planned.
“I was eager to escape the discussions and perhaps even pretend they didn’t exist, so I enrolled in a degree in Podiatric medicine.”
She hoped to find an enlightened population of scholars at University, only to discover more of the same, and a need to frequently challenge fellow students and lecturers’ views around racial inequality and racist stereotypes.
It wasn't until the final year in her studies that she hit her breaking point. Duncan was placed in a work/study program in a UK National Health Service (NHS) clinic when the clinician in charge made racist comments about a Black patient.
“I was horrified, and found myself weighing my options in the moment,” she recalls. “I believed that if I challenged him, I’d fail my placement, and that complaining to my lecturers would brand me as ‘too sensitive’ or having a ‘chip on my shoulder’.”
The lessons from her early school days ran deep, and she responded by turning her back and pretending not to hear. That’s when the realisation struck her.
“It was in that moment I knew that I was only running away from the problem rather than working to solve it. So, I went back to what had always been my passion – the pursuit of equality.”
Diversity and Inclusion
Legal battles against discrimination in the workplace have been going to court since long before diversity and inclusion (D&I) became a corporate buzzword.
From the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the US to the Race Relations Act of 1968 in the UK, workers have been taking up legal battles against discrimination based on gender, race, and other characteristics for decades. Equality and both gender and racial parity in organisations are issues with which companies across the globe continue to struggle.
And yet to many, ‘diversity in the workplace’ simply means meeting quotas.
“There can be an overemphasis on gender parity and other simplistic metrics that, while well-intentioned, don’t actually achieve the diversity of thought and inclusive workplaces that many organisations need,” Duncan explains.
This has begun to shift over the last decade, to a point where more companies are striving to embed D&I into all aspects of their business. According to Duncan, there’s greater acknowledgement now of the need for an intersectional approach (beyond gender or any single characteristic); for the removal of unconscious bias from hiring practices; and of the fact that creating a diverse and inclusive workplace is everyone’s job – from the Board of Directors to the front line and everywhere in between.
Life at Palladium
Duncan’s life trajectory changed dramatically after University, as she went from a degree in Podiatry to preparing cases for employment tribunals and working with local businesses and organisations to promote race equality in employment.
Within two years, she received a scholarship from The University of Glamorgan to earn her PhD, researching racism and sexism in the construction industry. Her doctorate launched her into a 20-year long career as an independent D&I consultant for the private, public, and volunteer sectors, providing organisations with guidance on building D&I strategies.
In 2016, she joined Palladium as the company’s first head of D&I.
“At the time, Palladium had developed a reputation among employees for being run by white, Australian men, and the CEO (to his credit) was keen to correct what risked becoming a macho, and even sexist culture,” she describes.
Thanks in part to the recommendations of an internal diversity working group, the D&I role came about from within, which is, according to Duncan, one of the most important aspects of initiating a true D&I strategy.
“From the very beginning, Palladium as an organisation has been on board with creating a more diverse and inclusive environment. Before I started in the role, I attended a CEO-led Global Town Hall to get to know the team and answer any questions.”
During the Q&A period, Duncan was bombarded with questions about her plans and strategies for D&I at Palladium.
“I hadn’t even started yet! But it demonstrated to me how engaged the team was across the board. Implementing D&I is difficult, but it's impossible when no one even wants to be better. That has never been a problem here.”
Creating Change from Within
One of the first hurdles Duncan faced was introducing an overarching, global D&I strategy that would be applicable to all Palladium employees in the 90 countries across the globe in which the company operates. This was no easy task considering the many diverse cultures at play.
As a rule, she stresses that organisations must focus on four key areas with their D&I strategy; employees, communities, supply chains, and thought leadership.
“Often the mistake with D&I is to get pigeonholed into focusing on your employees and forgetting the rest,” she says. “In reality, there’s both a need and a responsibility to focus on everyone within your sphere of influence, ensuring that you’re providing inclusive services to your communities or giving opportunities to minorities or minority-owned businesses in your supply chain.”
By doing so, organisations can draw a clear line in the sand for suppliers and partners, requiring compliance with a certain standard to continue the relationship.
The next step for Duncan was to win over those leaders who may have resisted the change at the outset.
“When I first started, of course there was resistance. Some people thought that my role meant everyone was racist and sexist and that I was going to come in and tell them everything they were doing was wrong.”
After countless conversations with stakeholders across the organisation, Duncan quickly recommended global key performance indicators (KPIs) linked to senior leaders’ pay, quarterly regional D&I forums, and equal pay reviews.
“The bottom line was that we were open and transparent with our teams, and leadership knew that our people would hold them accountable.”
The Inclusion Jigsaw
Implementing a comprehensive D&I strategy is the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense, and this bears out in the statistics. Ethnically diverse leadership teams are 36 percent more likely to be profitable than their peers, and a recent study found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive team were 21 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability.
Creating a diverse organisation is proven to be good for business, good for innovation, and good for culture.
But according to Duncan, a common trap for many organisations is an over-emphasis on gender equality, when gender is just one piece of the ‘inclusion jigsaw’.
“Women are not a homogeneous group, and gender parity does not equal diversity or inclusion when women are only being recruited and promoted from the same privileged backgrounds as their existing male counterparts.”
Christopher Hirst, Palladium CEO, has been a long-time critic of the barriers he sees to career progression when socio-economic considerations are missing from a company’s D&I and recruitment strategies.
“From requiring post-graduate degrees to prioritising volunteer experience for entry level positions, we limit our workforce out of the gate to those who can afford to pay for education and work for free,” he explains in an article for Thomson Reuters. “We risk being weakened by the lack of diversity that comes from a range of voices, in particular those from disadvantaged groups which ironically, are often the ones with the most contextual understanding and empathy for the problems we’re trying to solve.”
Looking ahead, Duncan anticipates a much deeper analysis of how different types of inequality intersect, bringing with it the ability to shift recruitment practices, selection criteria, cultures, and unconscious biases toward the necessary action for meaningful change. This intersectional approach is close to Rosanna’s heart as a Black woman herself, while it’s simply non-negotiable for any business as Black Lives Matter becomes the largest social justice movement in American history and picks up steam across the globe.
Christina Shim, head of Palladium’s Commercial Innovation Practice, echoes Duncan’s philosophy in her team’s work with corporations. “In too many companies, social impact is considered a public relations issue,” she says. “Racial justice is part of our new reality, and companies are being held accountable by their employees, customers, the communities with which they work, and even those shareholders who understand the value of long-term strategy.”
“There’s finally been a sea-change, and with power comes imperative. True progress on social issues requires corporate action.”
The Journey Isn’t Over
As of today, Palladium’s equal pay gap has gone from 21% in some parts of the business down to less than 2% globally. The company has achieved gender parity among the senior leadership team, and been called out as a top performer in this year’s Global Health 50/50 index, which monitors the gender policies and practices of the top 200 organisations working in global health around the world.
“We’ve made strides, but the journey isn’t over,” Duncan emphasises. “We have plans to continue analysing our candidates, workforce, and supply chain data by gender, race, and ethnicity. We’re providing more targeted training and development across teams and identifying any pay gaps due to ethnicity.”
For Duncan, this work isn’t just professional; it’s personal.
“I’ve spent 25 years working in this field and one of the most important things I can do is get people to understand why D&I is the right thing to do. My hope is that some of the principles we apply here at Palladium will rub off on people outside of their work life, creating a chain reaction in communities around the world.”
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to attend one of Dr Rosanna Duncan’s D&I workshops, or to learn more about how you can implement D&I strategies within your organisation.