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Access to opportunity, Improving employer brand

Access recap: Shelley McNamara and Dr. Michael Lomax on expanding opportunity by reimagining labels

Shelly McNamara, Chief Equality & Inclusion Officer, Procter & Gamble shares key tips on incorporating diversity and open-mindedness into every layer of your business.

  • Learn why diversity should be built into every level of your company, not just into tangential “initiatives.”
  • Flex your marketing muscles by making “diversity” a thing of the past.
  • Build empathy and grow employee loyalty by encouraging candor, vulnerability, and authenticity.

We all know that employees are more than just their titles, where they’re from, or how they’ve gained their skillsets. These labels never paint a full picture, and when higher education institutions or employers limit people by pushing them into two-dimensional boxes, they limit themselves.

During our recent Handshake Access 2023 event, we were honored to join Dr. Michael Lomax, President & CEO of UNCF as he gained key diversity, equity, and inclusion insights from Shelly McNamara, Chief Equality & Inclusion Officer at Procter & Gamble (P&G). Shelly is all about embracing strategies that help people reimagine limiting labels to build a more authentic workforce. Check out her tips for putting this into action below!

1. Make DEI initiatives part of the company’s DNA so that they’re no longer “initiatives.”

P&G is a consumer goods company of 100,000+ employees located in 80 countries. They manufacture brand names people everywhere will recognize, including Pepto-Bismal, Vicks, Febreeze, Pampers, and more. As such, their focus first and foremost is people, which has led them to embrace diversity as a rule, not an exception.

“A long time ago, our founders realized a few really important things: that there’s an inextricable connection between the communities that you're in—however you define community—and the corporation itself,” Shelly says. “Our company’s purpose is to provide branded products and services of superior quality to the world's consumers. And the world's consumers are very diverse. It's the full range of humanity that we seek to serve, so we have to do the work to reflect those consumers in our talent pool and in our talent base. We have to create an environment for them to be their best selves and to give their best selves. That's the work we have taken on over many decades.”

As a lesbian executive, Shelly has lived on both sides of the fence between privilege and discrimination, depending on how she presents herself to the world. “I've had very different treatment and experiences based on law, policy, practice, and culture,” she explains. “I've felt both embraced and alienated, and it's from those two feelings that I’ve deepened my passion to make Proctor & Gamble—and the world—a place where everyone can be their full self.”

Her advice for companies? To incorporate “diversity” concepts into everyday best practices because customers—and prospective employees—come from all walks of life.

2. Identify your biases, and do the work to change them

When Shelly first started at P&G 37 years ago, she worked with only one other female employee for the first five years. All her other colleagues were Caucasian males, even though part of the company’s growth mission always incorporated the diverse reality of their consumer base.

“I think my years at P&G have been about identifying the gap between intentionality and articulation of who we are and how it actually plays out in reality,” Shelly says. “I can now say with truth and confidence that I do work for a company that does the work needed to create a world that's more equal and fair while also offering equal access and opportunity for people. The company always aims to create an environment where we can attract, retain, develop, and grow.”

For a for-profit company, growth is key. Yet a critical component of growth comes with hiring people who reflect the ever-expanding range of humanity, and this takes thoughtful work, because most people operate with conscious and unconscious biases.

“As human beings, we all have wonderful parts and certain parts we're challenged by,” Shelly says. “We know about some of our inherent biases, but there are often other implicit ones we don't even know are there. We have to work to bring awareness about what those biases are and how they affect the decisions we make. P&G has always had intentionality, but we've gotten more and more clear as the context and environment have shifted around us.”

As Gen-Z enters the workforce, the demands are clear: they want companies to look and feel diverse. The call for change is strong, and all companies—including ones as large as P&G—need to eliminate biases to help narrow (and eliminate) diversity gaps.

3. Grow your brands—and marketing muscles—by making the idea of “diversity” a thing of the past

“At P&G, we’re in a chapter of new and accelerated learning about the fact that we have to stop making diversity, equity, and inclusion a thing that is ‘over there.’ It's no longer a separate thing from our business and strategy because it’s a core part of how we attract talent and grow our brands.”

As the US becomes more multicultural, companies have to keep up. This means companies shouldn’t be doing “multicultural marketing”—they should just be doing marketing.

“What this means for P&G is that we have brand builders who are responsible for consumer understanding—that's where our product development starts,” Shelly explains. “They’re rapidly shifting to say, ‘Who are our consumers? What are those segments or groups of consumers? What do we know about them?’ When you start to do that with intentionality and thoughtfulness, it requires embedding and normalizing the work of equality and inclusion.”

Even so, companies must be careful to ensure that employees’ own filters aren’t preventing certain groups of people from being considered during the data gathering process. According to Shelly, it becomes necessary to ask: How are you building systems that appeal to some people, alienate others, and fail to include certain people at all?

This has even extended into P&G’s onboarding process—particularly since they learned that their onboarding efforts weren’t going over well with new Black and Brown employees. The company has since prioritized a fix for this.

“If we can fix the process for those who may feel the most marginalized, we’ll fix it for the whole system,” Shelly says. “Yes, it's about growth of our business, but it's also about growth of human beings.”

4. Embrace courageous, personal storytelling

Sharing personal experiences has often helped Shelly gain empathy from colleagues and feel welcome in the work environment. This was never more obvious than in the summer of 1997, when she took on a new role at P&G and immediately had to talk to her new vice president, Scott, for two reasons: to tell him some good news and ask for help.

This was during the era when Ellen Degeneres had been fired from her sitcom for being gay, and Shelly was facing fears that the same might happen to her once it became known that she was a mother, and her spouse was a woman.

“Without missing a beat, Scott looked me in the eyes and said, ‘If anyone gives you any trouble whatsoever, send them to me, because that's not acceptable,’” Shelly says. “And in that moment, I experienced a sense of belonging and connection, because I think he saw not only someone different from him in some ways, but also the value, benefit, and joy that comes when you have some commonality in parenthood.”

Even so, it was 1997, and Shelly and Cindy couldn’t get married, which meant Cindy and their child couldn’t get on Shelly’s health insurance. The conversation around equality wasn’t present either inside or outside P&G’s walls in a way that needed to be talked about, meaning people in certain communities were still being denied basic benefits.

Companies can proactively make space for people—particularly minorities—to courageously step up and share their stories, concerns, fears, and realities. This can open hearts and minds and bring more humanity into the workplace.

5. Serve, support, and educate

According to Shelly, the first question companies should ask is: Why is it important to engage with the topic of diversity?

“I shared why it's important for P&G as a consumer goods company, but there are many other types of organizations on Handshake—including educators,” Shelly says. “And if you’re an educator, engaging with the diversity topic is essential, because you have a responsibility to serve, support, and educate all students. You're preparing them to be able to work, collaborate, and innovate with people who cross different spectrums of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and more.”

Shelly is thrilled that today’s talent pool is different than it was a decade ago because more diversity can bring more wisdom, different lenses on familiar problems, and deeper levels of insight and empathy.


We’ll leave you with one last gift from Shelly—a poem about the labels we put on people and why reimagining them can help us broaden our approaches to all areas of life:

We limit with our labels.

We assume who people are

and what they like to do.

We overvalue the “what”

and we undervalue the “who.”

We miss the gifts given to each.

We miss the purpose and the path

that each came to pursue.

What will it take to meet?

to connect,

and to discover who you are?

Who we are,

and who we can be together?

How Handshake helps employers see past surface-level labels

Employers like P&G are expanding their potential during the hiring process—a key part of Shelly’s diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy. To watch the full recording of Dr. Michael Lomax’s conversation with her—or to explore more content from Access 2023—check out the event page.

Visit more Access recaps:

How to navigate the changing talent landscape with Hilton CHRO, Laura Fuentes, President of Paul Quinn College, Dr. Michael Sorrell, and Handshake CEO, Garret Lord

‘Think again’ about early talent with New York Times bestselling author, organizational psychologist, and speaker, Adam Grant, and Handshake Chief Education Strategy Officer, Christine Y. Cruzvergara

Creating a future where we can Thrive with Thrive CEO, Arianna Huffington, and Handshake Chief Legal Officer, Valerie Capers Workman

7 tips to maximize ROI on your early talent strategy with TD SYNNEX CFO of Americas, David Jordan and TD SYNNEX VP Global Talent Acquisition, Chris DeLisa

10 tips to attract and develop in-demand tech talent with NSA CHRO Teisha Anthony, Activision Blizzard Chief Talent Officer, Alexander DiLeonardo, and General Assembly VP, Priya Ramanathan

Closing skills and opportunity gaps for underrepresented talent groups with Macy CDO, Shawn Outler, Google Head of Economic Opportunity Americas, Hector Mujica, Chancellor of SUNY, Dr. John King, and New York Times CHRO, Jacqueline Welch

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