Creating a Data-Driven DE&I Strategy with Janessa Cox-Irvin
Janessa Cox-Irvin, global head of diversity and inclusion at AllianceBernstein, explains how diversity can transform a workplace and shares an inside perspective on her company’s progress.
Janessa Cox-Irvin believes every person in an organization is responsible for its diversity and inclusion efforts. Cox-Irvin is the global head of diversity and inclusion at AllianceBernstein, a global investment management firm that has set itself apart with its commitment to creating a more equitable working environment.
“One of the things that we say at AB very often is that for DE&I to be successful, it has to sit on everyone’s desk,” Cox-Irvin shared. “It can’t just be the responsibility of those of us with diversity in our titles or in our backgrounds. This is a team exercise, this is a team sport. We need everyone involved.”
In this episode of Speak Up for Equity, Tennessee Diversity Consortium Executive Director Robert Lawrence Wilson talks with Cox-Irvin about the strategies she’s used at AB and the importance of creating a diverse workplace. Cox-Irvin also shares some words of encouragement for other people in the space who are struggling with burnout.
Why DE&I Matters
At AB, diversity and inclusion are not just a human resources initiative, they connect directly to the company’s mission.
“In the asset and investment management world, intellectual capital matters. In research, or when making some of those investment decisions, having different perspectives really, really matters,” Cox-Irvin explained. “We like to say that it’s part of our DNA. And we try to keep inclusion, specifically, front and center in all of our decision making.”
This has become even more important in the past few years, Cox-Irvin argued, because inclusion can easily take a backseat in times of crisis if we’re not intentional about focusing on it.
“Inclusion is a muscle. It’s a muscle that has to be exercised really frequently and consistently in order to grow stronger,” she explained. “And if you think about the last couple of years, these anomalous years that we’ve all just lived through, it was even more important to lean into some of these inclusion principles, because it wasn’t top of mind. We were all in survival mode.”
Getting Employee Buy-In
When creating a new diversity and inclusion strategy, Cox-Irvin stressed the importance of making sure employees understand what you’re doing and why.
“We‘ve laid that groundwork early on of really educating our people,” she explained. “We wanted to strip away the fear of not understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
To start, AB made a point to be clear about their definitions.
“When we think about diversity, it’s essentially just the presence of difference. Any difference that makes a difference,” Cox-Irvin explained. “[Inclusion] is a lot harder. It’s also harder to measure.”
Diversity is often an easier starting place for companies because it’s more data-driven — whereas inclusion is qualitative — but both are vital to a healthy workplace.
“Diversity is fact, where inclusion is an act. All the things that you are doing, that everyone at the organization is doing, to create a space that we all want to work in,” she explained.
Cox-Irvin also believes that continuing to have difficult conversations will over time help people become more comfortable with the idea of thinking about diversity and inclusion at work.
In 2020, for example, AB created forums for people to have open dialogue about difficult topics around race. They’ve also expanded efforts to help employees with things like mental health. Though many companies may feel that efforts like these are beyond their purview, Cox-Irvin argued that they’re essential to creating a more inclusive environment.
“Teaching people how to have those conversations respectfully and productively only helps us in the workplace,” she explained. “The more we put these traditionally ‘taboo’ topics out there, they will become less taboo.”
Focusing DE&I Efforts with Data
One key to AB’s success has been the team’s ability to create a diversity and inclusion strategy that’s driven by data. The organization’s leadership even published their DE&I numbers as a way to hold themselves accountable.
“We need to know where we are if we want to know where we’re going. So we have to actually be honest with the numbers there,” Cox-Irvin shared.
Focusing on data can also be a valuable way to help people in the DE&I space avoid burnout, Cox-Irvin argued.
“Most of us do not have an infinite amount of resources on our teams,” she explained. “Look at the data. What story does the data tell you... what needs the most focus right now? Let’s start there.”
To learn more about the ways you can get involved with the Tennessee Diversity Consortium, visit tennesseediversityconsortium.org/join-tdc. And be sure to subscribe to Speak Up for Equity wherever you listen to podcasts so you never miss an episode.