For a new interview-series on career paths of diversity, equity and inclusion professionals in Germany, author Tara Spitz talked to Sarah Cordivano about how she got from map making to becoming Associate Director of Global DEI. They’ll talk about what challenges she faces, which skills you need to succeed in a DEI job and how working in DEI looks like.
Tara: The most interesting topic for people who’d like to start a career in DEI is how to actually get into the industry. What was your career path into DEI? When we look at job titles you started at Zalando in 2018 as a Community Manager DEI, but I am sure the whole journey started earlier than that.
Sarah: At university my focus was on geography and data analysis. There is a lot of inequity in how resources and opportunities are distributed in society, which has a lot to do with where you live. So I became interested in this equity topic and did my research on access to maternity care, for example, how easily someone can access a hospital bed near them to give birth.
The next few years of my career I was mostly working with mapping software, but was really missing this intersection of equity and resource access. Eventually I moved to Berlin and started working at Zalando and became involved in their Diversity Guild. After a while I took on a new full-time role as a Community Manager supporting the Diversity Guild and worked on projects that helped the Guild and other communities in the company. When Zalando decided to finally create a full-time role for a Diversity Officer, I gladly applied and was hired into that role. Then, last April I moved to Springer Nature in a maternity cover role and have since stayed on permanently.
In addition to a lot of learning along the way, it’s been helpful to apply my project management and data analysis skills to this new career path. I think those skills have been really transferable.
That seems to be the common story of how people got into diversity jobs: “I was interested in that, I applied to this and somehow ended up there” and then learned most of it on the job.
I have a theory about this, actually. First, there are not that many people who have a long resume of experience in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work in Europe, so it’s a challenge to hire an experienced person from the industry. And the other challenge is, companies just starting to think about DEI don’t yet feel confident that the “diversity topic” is important enough for them to do a proper external search for a senior candidate. So they try to work with someone internally, who is close to the topic and essentially build that person into the role. I think that is quite common but also indicates that the European perspective on diversity in the workplace still needs to mature. For employees who find themselves at one of these companies, I have a blog post about how to transition from working with an Employee Resource Group (ERG) into a full time DEI role.
Now as an Associate Director of DEI: What your job looks like on a daily basis?
Essentially my work is taking the DEI strategy and putting it into practice. Typically I have two or three projects from that strategy that I am actively driving at any given time.
An example of one of these projects is a global DEI survey. Day to day the work includes designing the survey and working with stakeholders to make sure they are on board and engaged. That is just one example, but essentially that could be any project. E.g., a mentorship programme, which would involve designing, administering and creating the communication around it.
And in the meantime, stakeholders contact me with questions or challenges. Oftentimes I support them, present to their department, give some guidance and advice or offer training.
That pretty much is my day to day! A lot of stakeholder and project management, measuring the success and progress of our work and communicating with people internally.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges for organisations and for you personally in regards to working in DEI?
For organizations, the first thing I would say is trying to get top-down commitment. Often they want to do something around diversity, but that desire usually only lives somewhere within HR or among the Employee Resource Groups. If there are no people in the executive team that are willing to put their own time and visibility to support the work, then it is really hard to make the change throughout the entire organisation.
And the other thing is encouraging the organisation to think more broadly about diversity. Oftentimes companies are really focused on gender in the beginning. “Women in leadership” is their only goal. That is way too narrow of a focus. It actually perpetuates a lot of inequality that we see in other areas, like only thinking of straight or white women. Then the organization ends up having a very similar leadership tier but with a few women. So, encouraging organisations to think more holistically about diversity is a huge challenge.
Personally, a big challenge for me is prioritizing work-life balance and emotional space between myself and the work I am doing. DEI can be a heavy topic and it’s easy to internalize a lot of the challenges employees feel, because you empathize with them. But it’s also hard to be at your best when you lack perspective. So I make sure I have creative hobbies to focus on in my private life and I have reduced my working days as well.
Looking at it from the other side, when did you feel your work had the biggest impact?
An important thing about impact is figuring out how to actually measure it. I remember a few years ago I read a tweet that said something along the lines of: “If you want to know whether you are doing a good job as a Diversity Manager, don’t ask your CEO. Ask the people in your organisation that don’t have representation.” Women of colour, trans people, disabled people, people who really struggle to get the things they need and to have visibility. Ask them if you are doing a good job. Because how your work impacts them is more important than how it impacts your CEO. That is definitely one way I personally think about my success.
And then I also judge my success by whether or not senior leaders are feeling confident about talking about DEI. They act as role models by default. So if they have confidence to talk about diversity, it really trickles down to a lot more people throughout the organisation.
Talking about leaders and how they take their stand for diversity. Last year, especially due to the Black Lives Matter movement, we saw a quite big rise in diversity efforts by companies. How do you feel about that?
In Europe, I would say the Black Lives Matter movement has challenged organisations to put DEI at a higher priority. Discussions within companies pretty much advanced by five years in one summer. It’s good that employees are challenging their leaders to talk about racial equity, discrimination and paygaps.
BUT I also am not a big fan of companies with their statements: “Oh we are so committed, we care about this” and then nothing happens. I think it is fair to ask companies: You made a statement on June 3rd 2020, but what have you done since? What are you doing internally? What are you doing externally? How does the product you sell or your business impact inequality in society?
Specifically relevant to tech companies, I’d ask how the work a company does intersects with their mission statement on DEI. Much of the gig economy relies heavily on some type of (often exploited and underpaid) freelance labor. It’s difficult for me to find the authenticity in those companies’ DEI statements. Or if we think about social media platforms, their entire business model is built on sharing information. But often the most popular information shared on their platforms greatly contradicts their “values” on DEI. It’s appropriate to be skeptical of a lot of corporate DEI communication.
But in general, this past year has been an awakening moment for most organisations, because they have seen how important this topic is. Many organizations are expanding the size of their DEI team or increasing their budgets. Regarding the overall ambition around DEI work in Europe, I think the Black Lives Matter movement has really pushed it forward.
Coming back to the people who are interested in also starting a career in DEI. Is there anything that you can advise or recommend?
I would suggest doing some research about what the work in D&I is practically like. There are great blog posts out there about what to expect day to day from a DEI job. I think a lot of people have this expectation that diversity work is this really fun grassroots activism, like working with your favorite non-profit, advocating for equal rights for all. In reality, it is a lot more boring than that and more about slowly and steadily advocating for change inside complex systems and hierarchies.
And much of the work is also about finding compromises among stakeholders with vastly different motivations and understandings of what DEI means. Oftentimes, the job is focused on trying to get some sort of solution where both sides feel like they’ve succeeded.
And lastly, project and stakeholder management is very important, probably more important than most other things. Because if you cannot get people to collaborate together or manage a big company-wide project, it is really difficult to push things forward.
That’s my take, but everyone’s experience will vary, of course!
Are there any resources that you can recommend? Any podcasts you listen to, great books, blogs, magazines or other people you admire in the industry?
I have a little bit of self-promotion. I have a blog that problem solves typical challenges for organizations who are just starting their DEI journey. And I am working on publishing an ebook. It is on diversity in the workplace, essentially about how to create a strategy, how to make a budget, how to design an ERG program. It will be a handbook for people who are new to their DEI role.
There are also several DEI communities which you can find on linkedin and in other virtual spaces. These tend to be very supportive. Specifically, Floria Moghimi, Michael Martens and I organize a virtual community, where we meet once per month with people who are also doing diversity work in Germany. We have a very open conversation about what DEI work means and what challenges we are facing. I find that very helpful. If you’d like to join: Write us an email.
Then there is a book I can recommend: Inclusion: Diversity, The New Workplace & The Will To Change by Jennifer Brown. It is about what it practically means to work on DEI in the workplace and what approaches you should take.
I’ve also created a twitter list with around 30 DEI professionals. I find it really inspiring to follow others in the industry and see what they are doing and what’s important to them.