Work in progress: An update on our DEI journey
When I was appointed CEO of the foundation in December 2019, I made diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) a key pillar of my transition plan. As an employee and a leader of the foundation for more than a decade, I knew we had been making sincere efforts over the years to create a workplace where all employees were treated with dignity and respect and able to carry out their best work. I was also keenly aware that we were repeatedly failing to reach that goal in practice.
To better understand where and how we needed to improve, our new chief diversity and inclusion officer, Leslie Mays, organized our first qualitative DEI survey of employees in early 2020. The responses were eye-opening. But what happened shortly thereafter crystallized for me the magnitude of the challenge. After I wrote a message about the social justice movement following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, former colleagues reached out to me directly to thank me for speaking out but also to candidly share experiences from their time at the foundation where they felt we had fallen short.
Their stories were difficult to hear. I asked for a comprehensive survey of foundation alumni to give more people a voice. It confirmed that we couldn’t tackle these issues piecemeal. Instead, we needed to launch a new, comprehensive, long-term DEI agenda that covered every aspect of our culture, operations, and work.
The first phase of that process culminated in May of this year, when, based on intense work by a group of foundation leaders from every region and division, we finalized and published our DEI Commitment Statement, which lays out both our vision and the concrete actions we will take over the next three years to achieve it. In my accompanying note, I pledged to share periodic updates; this message is the first of those, outlining some key areas where we’re holding ourselves accountable.
Diversifying our workforce
We’re committed to ensuring that our workforce is meaningfully diverse across all levels and reflects the communities we serve. We’ve made modest progress in recent years: Today, 32 percent of our U.S.-based employees are from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups1, up from 29 percent in 2017. During that same period, the share of leadership positions held by people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups increased from 28 percent to 30 percent. Women in leadership rose from 42 percent to 49 percent in the same timeframe.
These figures don’t account for our offices across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East2. Consistent with our commitment to a locally representative workforce, the majority of our employees in those locations were hired from the countries or regions in which they’re based.
Still, we weren’t doing enough to accelerate change. Only 13 percent of employees in our survey last year indicated that they saw diverse representation at all levels of the foundation. Many respondents also urged us to place a more deliberate and intentional emphasis on inclusive hiring and finding candidates from a broader range of backgrounds. We’ve now partnered with a dedicated sourcing expert to proactively seek candidates and build networks in untapped markets with strong, diverse talent, and all of our recruiters and sourcing partners in all regions are now expected to deliver diverse slates of candidates for all open roles. We’ve created new guidelines for transparent, inclusive, and fair candidate experiences during the interview process. But all of this goes well beyond recruiting: We’ve now explicitly integrated DEI metrics and goals into our annual internal talent review and succession planning processes as well.
Building an inclusive culture
Other feedback encouraged us to place greater emphasis on providing safe spaces for employee voices and perspectives. That message took on even more urgency this year following the spate of attacks against Asian Americans and the continued persecution of LGBTQIA+ individuals. All these events raised legitimate questions about allyship and care for the lived experiences of our colleagues.
In an effort to surface those experiences to our leadership, we are also piloting a technology-enabled, confidential “safe channel.” This is in addition to other, existing channels available to employees for raising workplace issues, and it provides them a place to work through and define a path for resolving those issues in an off-the-record, impartial, and informal way. To help drive more debate and discussion, we’ve embarked on a series of “Bold Conversations” events, with topics including the role that men (particularly white men) can play in advancing DEI, the connection between racial disparities and health outcomes, and the need to remove ingrained systems of dominance and power in global health and development. This series complements events hosted by our 10 employee resource groups, which provide a unique space for colleagues to give voice to important issues. Many of these events have included frank, powerful, and difficult—but necessary—conversations where employees have shared their often-painful personal experiences, with ongoing examples of overt and covert racism, sexism, and homophobia. I know they’ve prompted many, myself included, to reconsider our words and behavior. But conversation alone isn’t sufficient, and my leadership team and I are exploring opportunities to act on the issues raised in each of these sessions.
Strengthening and diversifying our partnerships
One of the most complex and difficult exercises we have undertaken is rooted in our ability to achieve the outcomes we seek. We are exploring how to continue diversifying the mix of organizations we work with and strengthen the capacity of local voices. We’re finalizing a survey for partners as a counterpart to the ones we conducted for alumni and staff so we can hear firsthand ideas about how we can improve our policies and practices. We’ve also begun using our strategy reviews—the annual process by which we work with Bill and Melinda to determine resource allocations and programmatic priorities—to start requiring teams to take a more intentional look at the makeup and structure of their local partnerships and how to strengthen them to meet specific strategy objectives.
We have lots of great examples of where we have done this successfully, from helping to build strong, empowered local tobacco advocacy groups across Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa over the past 15 years to more recently helping to support the establishment and expansion of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which has played such a critical role in the COVID-19 response.
Similarly, in the U.S., with the stark inequalities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and a national focus on systemic racism, we’ve committed an initial US $100 million to more directly address inequitable racial impacts in education in the United States, as well as supporting efforts to expand COVID-19 diagnostic testing capacity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We also gave US$15 million to strengthen algebra outcomes for Black and Latino students.
But the bottom line is that we have not historically done this thoughtfully. Too often, we have put short-term objectives ahead of making the kind of long-term investments in deep, local partnerships that allow for the buy-in and capacity the work requires to be sustainable over the long run. Expect to hear much more on this from me in the future.
Above all, our leaders need to hold themselves and their teams accountable to our DEI vision and bear a special responsibility to model appropriate behavior. To that end, we’ve had all senior managers complete an assessment designed to increase their knowledge of their intercultural competence to inform development plans and specific DEI goals as part of their annual goal-setting process. This will better enable us to do the hard work that true inclusion requires—including making sure every person feels comfortable being heard and confronting microaggressions and other behaviors that have too often been tolerated. This will not be a quick fix, but it is central to the high-integrity culture we aspire to uphold.
We are acutely aware that we are still only in the early stages of our DEI journey, and we are fully committed to realizing our vision through long-term systemic change. This will require time, humility, and resources—as well as our ongoing willingness to learn.
In the months ahead, we’ll continue to refine the metrics used to measure our progress and track our results. I’ll share updates along the way, ensuring that employees and partners alike can help us uphold our DEI commitment. Intentionally embedding this vision into every aspect of our work is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the best way to improve our ability to achieve impact measured by our core vision: That every person deserves the chance to live a healthy and productive life.
Underrepresented racial and ethnic groups include Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Other, and Multiracial employees.
2The foundation is working to capture demographic data for all foundation employees in the near future.