A conversation with Hephzi Pemberton

Hephzi is the founder of Equality Group, a consultancy and executive search firm working with diversity and inclusion. Jo had a chat with her in Soho.

Hephzi PembertonHephzi Pemberton is the founder of Equality Group, a consultancy and executive search firm working with diversity and inclusion. Hephzi and Jo met in Soho to have a chat.

Jo: Can you tell me more about your background and how this work became important to you?

Hephzi: I went to Balliol college in Oxford, which was one of the first colleges to have a women's officer, giving women more of a voice in the student body. Before that, my mum was one of the first women to be ordained in the Church of England and she spent a long time campaigning for women's rights in the church. When I was growing up I had a clear sense of how much more there still is to do.

I became aware of other areas of inequality. especially when it comes to the business world, where there's a real lack of representation. For me this is an opportunity, not just a challenge. This is an opportunity in helping businesses that want to be inclusive, forward thinking and progressive. That's the whole concept of Equality Group: supporting those businesses.

Jo: I read a little about Kiteka, which you founded a few years ago. How do you pick where you want to put your energy and your focus?

Hephzi: It's a really good question. I think it comes down to three areas. What am I really passionate about? How can I have the greatest impact on something, whether that's helping someone else with what they're doing or starting something myself. So do I have the right skills, background, network to be able to actually implement this idea. I have never had a shortage of ideas! Then, is this the right time? I'm less concerned about risk - if I'm passionate about it, I think I can do it and it's the right time - why not get going?

Jo: How did that work with Kiteka?

Hephzi: I'd wanted to do something in East Africa because of having grown up in Congo and having quite a lot of connections through helping with some charities there. I wanted to do something specifically around women, entrepreneurship and technology. Access to technology is really, really critical and with the fourth industrial revolution and women at the bottom of the pyramid, being left out again, it is another hurdle for them that they have to cross. I was wanting to lower that barrier to access for them. A good friend of mine from Congo moved to Uganda and we talked about some ideas. She was on the ground and I was here in London, so the beauty of WhatsApp and Skype helped us start something.

Jo: At Equality Group, how do you start working with people in organisations?

Hephzi: Typically there is some sort of catalyst. It could be that the senior leader or leadership team really care about diversity and inclusion. They might think it's a real business opportunity. It could be that something's gone wrong, some sort of issue or case against them which has surfaced this as a problem. It could be external pressure from their investors or shareholders.

We usually work with smaller tech start ups or asset management firms. We begin with understanding the data and where they are currently. Okay, before we then think about it where they want to get to, how much commitment and buy-in is there, especially from the leadership. Then, how do we get there?

Jo: How do you find people respond to this, when you go in to work with them?

Hephzi: Ultimately, done well, creating an inclusive environment for everyone benefits everybody. It isn't just about favouring a minority group. It needs to be well communicated and bring everybody on board. We look at diversity holistically and in terms of intersectionality, so that at some point, everyone will feel represented in that discussion. You're not going to then be discriminating against the middle class white male, by not giving him a place in the discussion. Through inclusion, everyone must be part of the journey.

Jo: What are the challenges in your work?

Hephzi: Just getting businesses to take some practical action! So often it's made out to be so much harder than it needs to be. For example, why is it so hard to move away from a CV for hiring? There's a lot of new ways of assessing and recruiting people. People find it very, very hard to make the change even if there's a lot of data and research around why that would be beneficial. They get very attached to the ways that they have done things. Or let's take another example, like pay gaps. If you know that there is one there and the business is profitable, I don't know why you wouldn't just pay the underpaid group more. Either you pay one group more or one group less - it's extremely possible to do that!

We also headhunt, to find diverse talent. This is one of the most important ways to change and develop an organisation, especially at the senior leadership levels. We do find the conversation is still a bit stuck on gender. I agree this is the right starting point, but I would love other areas to come into that scoping and shortlisting process. That is why I am aware that the education and awareness part of what we do is so important.

So often we are convincing people that it is not as hard as they might think, it is actually about just starting to do it. Just make sure every shortlist is 50-5o, or if you really have a gender gap, then an 80-20 shortlist.

Jo: At the tech company my partner works at, women really rarely apply to work in the technical teams.

Hephzi: So they have a brand and culture problem then. There are quite a few 50-50 tech teams, there are quite a lot of female tech engineers out there. They need to look at their brand, their process and how they are populating their pipeline. They need to spend time and energy on that process, rather than what often happens which is “Oh my god, we’ve got more work, we need to fill that position right now”. Thought and energy needs to go into the planning around what they want and why,

Jo: Conversations on these topics can be challenging, how do you deal with that?

Hephzi: There’s a lot of ignorance out there around the topic, so if you lower your expectations of what people know, that can be a helpful place to start. We have a strong focus on education and awareness raising being part of what we need to be doing ahead of an organisation putting in place some really practical actions. We know that part of our responsibility is the education and awareness, which is why we publish research and hold events.

Knowing that there's still a long way to go on that side of things and that different organisations are on different stages of the journey helps a lot with not getting frustrated and just see that as part of the process and part of why we exist.

Jo: I am holding a RISE community call soon to get more focused conversation going around diversity and inclusion. I often find we talk about diversity to mean quite different things, sometimes meaning demographic diversity and other times around diversity of thought.

Hephzi: I think some of the risk with this is when people start talking about being genderblind or colourblind. That's rubbish. Nobody is colourblind! We have biases and we just have to live with that. People will then use this as an excuse not to look at it.

People also make the excuse “Actually we just want cognitive diversity”, meaning different ways of thinking about a problem. Well, that's actually quite hard to measure. If you're not going to have any demographic diversity then you will not have that richness and the perspective that comes from lived experience. Just because you might be more numerate and think about things in a different kind of way certainly doesn't mean that you're bringing all the different aspects of a life differently lived.

Jo: Another hot topic with this work is unconscious bias

Hephzi: It is used as a calling card “Oh we care, we know about unconscious bias, we’ve done our work.” We have written a white paper on it as it is something that often gets misunderstood, it is used as a tick box exercise and the research shows that it is not always helping. We wanted to shine more light on the topic to help organisations realise it should just be part of a more holistic ongoing programme of awareness-raising, training and engagement. We want people to understand that you don’t do the unconscious bias training and then ‘you’re sorted’ and no one’s got bias any longer. It isn’t magic!

It also needs to be voluntary. Just like you wouldn’t get the right results if you forced someone to go to therapy. If you force me to go to unconscious bias training you can’t expect me to engage with it and then for it to make any difference.

Jo: What do you really love about the work you do?

Hephzi: I love the topic so much. It’s endlessly fascinating. I love some of the clients we work with and the people that we get to work with. It is so rewarding, I just I love the mission. I feel like we're just we are just at the start of it and I'm excited about the potential of what we're developing and the ways that could then be applied to help businesses be better. We want to help the private sector really be impactful in the world because we have a lot of strong beliefs, especially given the current political environment. The private sector has a huge responsibility and opportunity for making this world a better place, particularly through servant leadership. It’s exciting to partner with businesses that really believe that too.

Jo: How do you deal with those days and those interactions where you feel like there is still so far to go?

Hephzi: With a really good team, a really good support network around me. The sense of how long this journey is. This business could be a ten, twenty year business. I might not be the one still running it but we're not going to achieve anything we could achieve in a short amount of time. There is a peace in realising that, as well as strength.

Jo: These topics are things that I care about, but have often avoided ‘doing’ something about it, for example through backing away from conversations about it.

Hephzi: You need to be bold. It starts with a conversation. Doing this work will make us a more attractive organisation that people are more likely to want to work with. If we can represent a broader spectrum of perspective, people and interests, that is great. It starts with awareness and understanding and so you need to be able to find the space to do that.

At the Equality Group, I'm aware of my own biases as the founder. I love hiring ambitious, feisty women. That is the natural person I will pull around me. I have to be really conscious about it now. So, we keep talking about it.

There’s also an importance to celebrate successes, as often the dialogue around diversity and inclusion can be quite negative when we talk about failing and the unjust. Looking at RISE - you say you are good in terms of gender diversity, you are probably quite an empathetic organisation, you could celebrate the work you have done around culture. Then we can think, how do we build on the good stuff we are doing? What are we missing?

Jo: I think people often think they are going to be criticised.

Hephzi: That's right and people get very defensive and it's very emotional. Often people make it about “us and them” rather than “us and us” as a dialogue. It can be quite nerve wracking for the white guys who hold the power, they may have worries about their careers going slower or they won’t be considered for promotions. And yes - that is part of the reality. As power is shared, as privilege is being opened up, even in a small way around the promotion or review cycle, that will have consequences.

Being able to talk about that process is the most important part. It is amazing when you get that awareness that “oh it is okay to do that, as women have been doing that for decades!” You know, things going slower, or missing out, and the acceptance of “okay, for now, my career does go a bit slower.” It is like the thoughts you need to have when you have a child, “well, this is all going to look quite different!”

Jo: How do you find people respond to the topic of responsibility?

Hephzi: It shouldn't be just one person's responsibility, rather a collective organisational responsibility. People need to be equipped for the one-on-one conversations. More time should be spent on how to navigate conflict. How do you have those difficult conversations? I don’t think that responsibility should be put on an individual. There needs to be a collective want to do this and buy-in and at that point, those conversations will start to happen.

Click here to learn more about Hephzi and Equality Group. Or, find out about how we approach working with culture by clicking here.