• Laura Hay, Leadership |

What difference can a day make? The answer is “A lot”, if you spend International Women’s Day with Susan Johnson, the dynamic Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer at The Hartford, an insurer widely admired for building a diverse and inclusive workplace.

On March 8th, I had the pleasure of co-hosting a live IWD event with Susan, sponsored by The CPCU Society, to spotlight inspiring women in insurance. While we hashed out the persistent challenges faced by women and other under-represented groups, it was so inspiring to experience Susan’s enthusiasm, and hear her action-oriented approach to DE&I. Susan turned a symbolic day into a ‘shot of adrenaline’ for anyone wondering how to accelerate ambitious workplace inclusion goals.

Spot bias and call out micro-aggression

The first thing that strikes me about Susan is her unflagging passion for the cause, even though she’s been on the front lines - and marked International Women’s Days - for two decades, including years when progress on gender and pay equity, and workplace diversity at many large U.S. employers seemed slow.

“I’m still energized by it because DE&I is constantly changing and it’s gaining profile on so many fronts,” remarks Susan. “The progress we make today on ‘diversity’ is tomorrow’s ‘inclusion’, and right now so many leaders and companies are seeing the true value of DE&I.”

In particular, she is pleased to see IWD’s focus on ‘break the bias,’ since awareness of this underlying barrier is critical: “Bias is rooted in our ‘back-of-the-brain instincts,’ and often we don’t know we have an unconscious bias, how it influences us, or impacts others. It’s baggage that we carry, and we each must do a better job of being aware of our biases and changing our responses.”

Susan admits that she’s personally confronted bias: “As a Black woman working in the HR and Diversity fields, I was often underestimated or marginalized, even though I am a real ‘corporate business junkie’ who loves building business strategies. At times I really had to assert myself to overcome perceptions.”

She can rhyme off the many forms of ‘micro-aggressions’ that women face in the workplace, from being doubted, to interrupted, to dismissed. And, this unconscious bias is compounded when an individual has intersecting identities, for example a gay woman of colour of a certain age.

“We must all be prepared to call this out. So ‘If you see something, say something,’ preferably in a way that is comfortable for you and educational for the offender,” says Susan, who adds that momentum is growing. “In 2020, a multitude of events, including the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer, challenged our society, highlighting racial and structural injustice and inequity. Since then, many people have told me and other colleagues of color that they finally understand that unconscious bias in the workplace is real.”

Turn awareness into action

Despite widespread buy-in to the need for inclusivity, Susan and I agreed that more intentional efforts are required to bring change to under-represented groups.

Susan describes how, “Companies must carefully build their business and talent strategies, based on an appreciation of what got us here, where we want to go, and how we will get there.” For instance, The Hartford has embraced a challenge from its CEO to set bold sustainability commitments, “and up our game.” This includes a 2020 pledge to achieve gender parity (50 percent) among company leadership by 2030, and to double the number of people of color in leadership positions at The Hartford.

“To do that, we leveraged a number of processes and systems, and embedded management accountability, by which we link the performance of our unit leaders in delivering our ‘pretty formidable’ strategic diversity plan to their annual performance feedback,” explains Susan. “We also tie these criteria to Management’s long-term compensation program.” She adds that similar aggressive strategies have served the company well and, over the past five years, representation of women of color in company leadership has risen 39 percent, and increased by 10 percent for women overall.

“To achieve those results, we’ve focused on internal learning and capability-building, to clearly show everyone, ‘This is where we are going’, ‘these are the behaviours we expect’, and ‘this is what we will hold you accountable for’.”

Specifically, The Hartford has strengthened the inclusive capabilities of its leaders by creating models and training people, inspired by the ground-breaking book by Jennifer Brown, How to be an Inclusive Leader, which coaches individuals to become aware, active and, ultimately, advocate for inclusion. The company also engrained ‘The Hartford Behaviors,’ a set of guiding values that employees honor, to explain in practical ways how employees can be more inclusive on the job.

Similarly, to create an environment and skills for staff to talk about difficult workplace issues, The Hartford launched its ‘Courageous Conversations’ program, by which groups of employees, during facilitated discussions, tackle a range of emotional and complex topics, from age-ism, to race relations, to faith in the workplace.

Susan points out that, with this foundation in place, an organization can target specific barriers to inclusivity. For instance, I mentioned that low female representation in leadership can be spurred by a lack of confidence among many women to apply for those position sentiments that are often driven by a company’s culture. Companies can tackle the issue by using a three-pronged approach: “To put it a crudely but clearly, we must ‘Fix the women’, ‘Fix the men,’ and ‘Fix the organization’.” She elaborates that this means:

  • How can we offer development skills to equip women to be more confident to apply for those positions?
  • How can we make the talent management systems and the system-users less biased when executing talent actions such as writing job descriptions and screening applicants?
  • And, how can we create an inclusive work environment in which a woman will feel comfortable seeking encouragement from her manager, mentor or colleague?

When one breaks down sizable challenges in this way, it’s hard not to share the enthusiasm.

Sums up Susan, “Equity is now really in the spotlight and there’s no going back. I am so heartened by all the people who have recently expanded their minds and are seeing things in a new light. We’re still not eradicating inequities fast enough, but if we each recognize our biases, speak up and take actions - whether at the personal or enterprise level - we can create workplaces where women thrive, and achieve more equitable outcomes for everyone.”

More about Susan Johnson: Susan is the Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer at The Hartford, responsible for leading enterprise-wide DE&I initiatives and aligning them with business strategies. Having worked at this US-based property and casualty insurance, group benefit and investment provider since 2013, Susan partners with company leaders to ensure the workforce reflects their customer base, that they drive successful talent strategies, and focus on internal and external business and operational activities related to diversity. Susan has HR and Talent/Diversity leadership experience at several Fortune 500 companies and has worked on political campaigns and on policy and management issues in the public sector. Previously, she was the Board Chair for the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, and is a member of the Board of Directors for the National African American Insurance Association. Susan received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Spelman College and a Masters in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University.

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