In developing an understanding of the perceptions of digital leaders in relation to diversity leadership in their workplace this study has found that there are personal and workplace factors which influence their motivations, choices and strategies to champion EDI. The data in this study includes a striking mismatch in understanding of the risks associated with championing EDI issues in the workplace. While all of the other managers were quickly able to identify a range of risks, personal and professional, the HR professional implied that they would be ‘surprised to hear’ that there were any risks for individuals in championing EDI. These risks were identified by male and female managers and while they were different in nature, they were nevertheless a serious consideration for each of these individuals. This highlights an area for more work in understanding the support that managers need when they take these risks, to shed light on why some digital leaders are reluctant to champion diversity. It is clear from the responses of these digital leaders that even though they could identify clear business drivers for diversity, that did not entirely mitigate the perceived risks inherent in tackling the structural issues in the workplace. This represents a risk for the sector in that we may put effort into diversity recruitment, and winning external awards for that activity, but do no work to create motivational rewards or the inclusive environments needed for happy workplaces and valuing diversity. Huy (2011) warns that:
‘ limited attentional resources and time pressures in organizational life often lead even well‐meaning, competent executives to neglect the social‐emotional aspects in their strategy implementation actions, and this explains, in part, the tall challenges of making new strategy happen in firms.’(Huy, 2011).
Digital leaders have limited time and attention to give to strategic change initiatives such as EDI and failure to spend time supporting them in the social and emotional aspects of these challenges risks making change a hard task. The data show that managers identify strongly with their role as digital leaders and understand the leadership role in supporting equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and that they consider a wide range of personal and contextual factors in deciding how prominently to champion these issues. Their decisions are mitigated by their perception of risk. There are risks and it is these risks which are weighed up by managers before they make the choice to explicitly champion or ‘sell’ issues. It is clear that while many agree that support from leaders is needed to ensure that diversity initiatives are successful, support for leaders is also essential if they themselves run the risk of backlash and defensive routines by colleagues.
Supporting diversity in digital leadership
In order to move forwards in supporting diversity and inclusion activities promoting diversity in digital leadership in higher education it is important that universities recognise that:
- Digital leaders represent a distinct identity group as distinct from other professional service areas and academic leaders.
- Digital leaders struggle to find clear direction from the top with regard to EDI values in their organisations to which they can relate.
- Recruitment and retention to the IT department is a highly competitive area with structural and contextual issues shaped by industry beyond higher education.
Practical steps can be taken to address the needs of digital leaders by:
- Ensuring that IT staff are highlighted as a distinct group in organisational data reporting so that diversity can be tracked, evaluated and researched.
- Including in diversity leadership programmes explicit understanding of the overlapping sectoral contexts of higher education and the tech sector.
- Gaining a nuanced understanding of the career trajectories and personal identity backgrounds of digital leaders as a group who play an increasingly important role in organisational success.
Organisational development and HR professionals can support digital leaders by:
- Engaging directly with the structural and power inequalities manifesting in the tech sector.
- Recognising that even where they may be a clear management business case accepted for EDI, the reality for digital leaders delivering it carries inherent personal and professional risk.
- Providing support for mangers who champion EDI where they themselves run the risk of backlash and defensive routines by colleagues.