Why Bain added 'equity' to its diversity and inclusion strategy

01 December 2020 Consultancy.eu 9 min. read
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Bain & Company is determined to use its size and influence to push for diversity, equity and inclusion. Amsterdam-based leaders Fleur van Beem and Alejandro Navarro spoke to Consultancy.eu on how one of the world’s largest strategy consulting firms is encouraging clients to up their diversity efforts, as well as their own consultants to remain at the forefront of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The consulting profession has mounted a sustained drive to improve its diversity & inclusion policies. This has seen firms look to boost senior representation of staff from all backgrounds and walks of life, broaden their recruitment net to find talent from beyond the often narrow social parameters they have traditionally relied upon, and ensure that measures such as flexible working can help retain staff who would traditionally drop out of the talent pool due to the pressures of a rigid full-time schedule.

However, according to Bain & Company, one aspect of this human capital revolution which is often neglected is the need for ‘equity’. Explaining why Bain targets diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), Alejandro Navarro said, “the impetus came from events in the US – police violence, the Black Lives Matter movement – which really prompted us to double down.”

Fleur van Beem and Alejandro Navarro - Bain & Company

“Diversity and inclusion work has to include an element of equity, calling it out specifically to say that we as a firm are committed to investing toward equitable outcomes, regardless of skin-colour, socioeconomic background or race, and as a company we have made very large public commitments to promoting racial and social equity which go beyond traditional firm-based diversity & inclusion efforts.”

Originally from Mexico, Navarro joined Bain in the US after university in 2009 – and “got to feel what it’s like to be part of a minority group” with the difficulties that come with that. Fortunately, he remembers that Bain put a lot of time and effort into making him feel welcome – an impact he hopes the firm’s DEI work can have on wider society.

Now an Associate Partner based in Bain’s Amsterdam office, he said that as well as encouraging and fostering dialogue across Bain’s offices on the subject, for example, the consultancy has also committed $100 million in pro-bono support for racial and social equity causes over the next five years.

Fleur van Beem, a Partner in Bain’s Amsterdam office, added, “To create a level playing field considering individual needs and differences, equity is essential. We need to provide opportunities to address structural imbalances and promote fair, impartial treatment and outcomes for everyone.”

While the backdrop is “more dramatic in the Americas – “your career options there can be limited based on to the zipcode where you were born and what school you went to” – even in the Netherlands there still is a need to ramp up equity focus. “Companies should discuss where to source talent, and how opportunities can be offered to talented individuals with differing backgrounds.”

Van Beem joined the firm 15 years ago, and at the time was one of the very few women in a traditionally male-dominated profession. This sparked an individual passion “from day one” to attract, retain and promote more women in a job that does not have a track record of being easily combined with an intense social- or family life.

“Diversity and inclusion work has to include an element of equity.. At Bain, we also promote racial and social equity.”
– Alejandro Navarro

A lot has changed both for the firm and Van Beem since then. She expanded, “I am a working mother with five kids… and by now I have also gone through all the changes in career of a strategy consultant. As you go through the different stages while building a family, I think it gives you good insight into what it takes, what needs to change for a more balanced gender mix. From the get-go, I have been part of our Women at Bain network, both locally and regionally.” 

Supporting equity

Bain has a Global Women’s Leadership Council, which Van Beem said has a very formal programme for driving improvement in the firm’s gender representation. This is replicated on a regional level too, with local committees rolling out initiatives to improve gender balance in leadership – including unconscious bias training, sponsorship programs and schemes for part-time and flexible working. These types of programs and support systems are also helping to drive the broader DE&I agenda, beyond gender.

Elaborating, Navarro explained that it would be wrong to assume everyone receives the same treatment and opportunities regardless of race. “When we talk about equity, we are really talking about looking at our structures and processes to ensure equitable outcomes. This may require differential investment to ‘level the playing field’.

For example, “research would suggest that women or people of colour tend to be under-sponsored. So a sponsorship program aimed at these groups can help close that gap and ensure talented individuals with varying opportunity sets come interview with Bain. Once at Bain, we overinvest to ensure under-represented groups feel at home, and have access to top quality training, mentorship and professional development opportunities.”

Using the events in the US as a jumping off point, Bain hosted a half-day in its Amsterdam office to discuss systemic racism and how to address it. Interviewing people to see how they felt about different events, leaders found that even among Bain’s open and inclusive community, everyone had experienced Amsterdam differently.

“It comes as a shock to many that a Black colleague in the Netherlands – who shares the same social community and profession as his or her peers – can be treated so differently in their personal life,” Navarro said. “For them to open up about this, and talk about ‘laughing off’ an insensitive joke, or say, ‘Sometimes if I go to a certain area at night I get treated differently than my white colleagues’ served as a clear call to action for all of us.”

Simply providing a space for staff to talk about their experiences in this way has a double effect – normalising discussions on race in a work setting to help drive societal change, and allowing Bain to better support their staff, creating the affinity groups and inclusive environment needed for them to thrive. According to Van Beem, this is also something which is essential for improving the firm’s gender equity.

Van Beem specified, “Treating everyone in a similar way goes beyond recruiting, to how we think about what it takes to do this job for a young mum or a young dad. Are we providing the same chances for both of them as they face different challenges in that moment of their life? So in this way I see all three elements – diversity, equity and inclusion – as being interdependent. To realise diverse leadership teams, it is essential to have an inclusive culture and policies that create a level playing field by understanding and adapting to individual circumstances.”

“It’s about building structures where diversity, equity and inclusion work together because you need all of them.”
– Fleur van Beem

Future inclusivity

The dedicated DEI work of Bain has already paid dividends on a local level, according to Van Beem. Noting that she was “extremely proud” of the progress made at the Amsterdam office in particular. “Looking at the broader tier-one consulting market, Bain & Company is in the top quartile in terms of developing female leadership. That by no means suggests maintaining this level will be easy, however.”

“This needs constant focus, commitment and care – and expansion. This needs to go beyond the gender topic – because I have only been talking about this from the prospects of women at the firm, but that is quite an old-fashioned mind-set. In a way, I am proud, but in another I only feel like we are just getting started.”

From a broader European perspective, meanwhile, Van Beem argued that the drive for DEI is set to accelerate. We see that the “business case phase”, where many business leaders approached change with a “show me the money attitude,” and where complicated maths would be needed to persuade them to commit, is now followed by the “individual coaching” phase.

In this phase, women are trained to navigate the existing environment, and adopt good practices to “become a corporate tiger” to “break the glass ceiling” – with a move towards a phase which is characterised by “change the system.”

“With all good intentions, I am happy we are moving into this new phase, where we think about changing the fabric of a business to cause a paradigm shift. Building structures where diversity, equity and inclusion are working together because you need all of them. We have to move beyond just focusing on the few role models pulling it off, to widespread change!”

According to Navarro, meanwhile, the key is to maintain Bain as a company which “practices what it preaches” and sets a best-in-class example for its clients. Looking at the company’s steady push for female partners across its offices, he stated there is still occasional “scepticism” among all-male client leadership teams – particularly in nations where gender rights are less advanced than the Netherlands – however, this scepticism quickly disappears when they see the benefits diversity brings to Bain’s work.

“What’s encouraging about that,” Navarro added, “is that I have seen those same clients seek to push the diversity agenda in their own firm, triggered in part by positive experiences with diverse Bain teams.”

Navarro concluded, “I’m also especially proud of the way Bain is willing to go the extra mile to never compromise on its values. There’s a very clear emphasis from day one that if you are ever uncomfortable in a business setting, you can and should report to your supervisor or HR for support, and from there I have seen Bain take concrete action on issues around gender, sexuality, race, etc., even if that risks damaging a lucrative client relationship.”

“That’s something which unfortunately not every company would do, but it shows Bain’s unwavering commitment to diversity.”