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Lifting the Lid on Retail Diversity and Inclusion: Tackling the Challenges

Published on 18 July 2023

On 4 July 2023, RPC partnered with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) to host the conference 'Lifting the Lid on Retail Diversity and Inclusion: Tackling the Challenges'.

Attended by over 60 people working across retail, the event kicked off with a fireside chat on trans inclusion at work with Helen Dickinson OBE, CEO of BRC and Emma Cusdin, a champion for trans and non-binary rights, and an award-winning role model in the business sector on LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Next up was a quick fire round on bridging the gap between theory and practice in diversity and inclusion with Kelly Thomson (Partner and ESG Lead, RPC) and Rachel Pears (Head of Responsible Business, RPC) followed by a panel discussion on the challenges to and drivers of change, where the panel members from both retail and other industries, shared their views on employees driving key agendas, customer market pressures and the role of leadership.

To close the event, Samantha Renke, an actress, broadcaster, writer, and disability rights campaigner, shared her insights on the importance of disability inclusion and emphasised that disability should never be considered a defining identity. 

Below, we round up three key themes from the conference.

Be clear about what 'inclusion' means to your organisation

Data suggests that society is shifting and individuals are feeling more comfortable to be who they are. In relation to trans inclusion, the Global Pride Survey 2023  found that an average of 9% of adults in 30 countries identify as LGBT+ and 1% of adults identify as transgender or non-binary. At the same time, however, there appears to be a generational gap in attitudes: younger generations ("Gen Z") show higher levels of support for measures in favour of transgender people, while "Gen X" and "Boomers" are more likely than younger adults to have no opinion about transgender issues, possibly because they are less likely to know (or, perhaps, to knowingly know) a transgender person.

However, it is a DE&I myth that inclusion is a goal which 'will fix itself over time'.  It is a false assumption that DE&I is a thing that will be done – it is about constantly looking at systems, structures, decisions, practices and continual learning to shift cultural norms and expectations, both inside and outside of the workplace, creating environments where individuals can thrive.

Data has found that employees who have described their sexual orientation as 'other' felt less included than their colleagues generally across the workforce. 

However, significant progress is evident across the retail sector, the BRC recently reported in its third annual Diversity and Inclusion in UK Retail survey that 64% of businesses could identify at least one senior leader from the LGBTQ+ community, compared with 47% in 2022 and 27% in 2021. And retailers are impatient to do more to support their LGBT, trans and non-binary employees.

Emma Cusdin is Director of Global Butterflies, an organisation that helps many businesses create a diverse and inclusive culture where all employees can excel in their career. They achieve this by helping employers to support their trans and non-binary employees and attract clients and customers from the trans and non-binary community.

Discussion of issues related to trans inclusion can get polarised. Emma was asked what advice she had for businesses, leaders and HR professionals, to navigate those conversations. Her answer: "You employ a whole range of people. As an organisation, be clear on what 'inclusion' means to you. People can bring their thoughts and views into the business, but it is the behaviour that is the challenge. Create boundaries … and know where your organisation stands on certain issues."

Proactively demonstrate good allyship and boost psychological safety 

People from underrepresented and marginalised communities are looking for signals in the workplace to reassure them that they are welcome and will be supported. They are waiting for you to say or do something positive. Leaders will need to ask themselves, what have they said about any particular area of inclusion? How are people in your organisation talking about the topic? 

When looking at improving inclusion outcomes in relation to disability, it is critical to ensure people with disabilities are involved in the discussion. To quote Samantha Renke: "Nothing about us, without us". This can be applied equally to all areas of difference and demonstrates the importance of diversity in the room.

Psychologically safe workplaces enable people to be themselves; talk openly about issues, share stories, and enrich understanding. Indicators of people feeling unsafe might include a high turnover of employees or lots of grievances from a particular part of your community. Be proactive about creating and nurturing that safety. Think about the purpose of your employee networks/ERGs – are they 'safe spaces' for those outside of the majority in your business or are they being expected to move the dial and help progress the agenda? Reflect on whether there is an unwritten priority list of DEI topics in your organisation or whether you are actively progressing all aspects and treating your employees are the individuals they are.

DE&I benefits everyone and not just marginalised groups

If you look around your organisation, there are bound to be under-represented groups. Those gaps – that lack of diversity - mean that you are not reflecting society, or, probably, your customer/stakeholder base. Profitability statistics on the benefits of diverse workforces speak for themselves and have been much discussed. If there are lots of different people in your customer base, then ensure those people are reflected in your workforce so that you are better equipped to speak to all of those distinct experiences, backgrounds, cultural nuances and beliefs. 

But it needs to go beyond representation and create environments where diverse perspectives can flourish. This creates a better experience for your employees and, also, helps futureproof your business. By gaining a better understanding and including the experiences and perspectives of marginalised communities, businesses will connect more authentically with them. These insights will identify opportunities for message improvement and for product / service innovation. This is relevant to all retailers and many other sectors and their employees individuals regardless of their role. DE&I is not a siloed HR issue – it should be seen as an everyone issue that affects workplace culture, employee and customer engagement, brand reputation and market share. 

RPC is the partner for the BRC Diversity and Inclusion Charter, a series of commitments which aims to drive change in the retail industry. Launched in 2021 with 40 signatories, the Charter emerged from clear awareness that the industry needs to do much more on inclusion. Since launch, the number of signatories has more than doubled, and data collection has shown improvements in certain areas.