“In order for us to walk in someone else’s shoes, we first have to take off our own” - the importance of a holistic view on diversity

Dr Poornima Luthra (left) and Annelise Goldstein (right)
Thanks to its commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion, Maersk Tankers has been featured in the book “Diversifying Diversity”. The author, Dr Poornima Luthra and Annelise Goldstein, Maersk Tankers’ Chief Human Resources Officer, got together for a conversation about reducing bias, embracing diversity and nurturing inclusion in organisations.

Poornima, what stands out to you in Maersk Tankers’ approach to fostering a diverse, equal and inclusive culture?

Poornima: I featured organisations in the book that I found to have made concrete efforts in the field of diversity, equality and inclusion, and that are also sincere and authentic while doing so. For me, this is the case with Maersk Tankers. The company started with the idea of diversity of thought and understands that cultural transformation is needed to become a diverse and inclusive organisation. In many ways, I felt that Maersk Tankers reflects the holistic understanding of diversity that I am promoting in my book. 

Annelise, what is it about Maersk Tankers’ diversity and inclusion initiatives that attracted you to the company? 

Annelise: Maersk Tankers is going through a significant transformation and, as part of this, a cultural shift. As a service provider, we need to bring in diversity of thought, but we also need the leadership competencies that will create an inclusive culture. If you want to pioneer, you need a climate where everyone feels safe and supported, so you can do things that have not been done before by speaking up and challenging status quo. The starting point should not be improving statistics, but a cultural shift, so we can see how the benefits of an inclusive culture bring out the best in all of us. This stood out in Maersk Tankers’ approach.  

Why is it better to start with diversity of thought rather than diversity of gender?

Poornima: Per se, there is nothing wrong with putting gender on the agenda. But the challenge is that if you put any minority group in the spotlight, you often don’t get the majority on board, because people feel that they cannot connect with it and see it as something for leadership or minorities to deal with. If we want an inclusive culture, everyone needs to be on board and to feel responsible. The challenge we face is that many of us don’t know how to be an active ally of inclusion. 

Talking about your idea of “active allyship of inclusion”, what changes can individuals make to their own mindset and behaviours in everyday life? 

Poornima: My active allyship model is based on three dimensions. First, it’s about knowledge. This means the curiosity to understand more about different people and their backgrounds, as well as about the issues within diversity, equality and inclusion. Secondly, it is about honestly questioning one’s own bias and attitudes towards other people. Thirdly, it is about consistent and frequent behaviours and actions that form active allyship. Examples include fostering open conversations in a psychologically safe environment, addressing biases while also sponsoring and providing mutual mentoring opportunities for minority groups. 

How can companies be allies of inclusion?

Annelise: If you look at it from a leadership perspective, it is about creating the framework in which these allyship behaviours can happen by talking about it, acknowledging those who do it and by being a role model oneself. And then, curiosity needs to be the desire. An inclusive culture is not a mandate that someone needs to put in place – we need to find that desire from within … 

Poornima: … and it really has benefits for everyone at the end of the day. It’s not just going to benefit minority groups. 

Looking at diversity, equality and inclusion within the context of the shipping industry, are there different challenges or opportunities for shipping companies?

Poornima: The shipping industry has long been male dominated, so we need to ask: Where are we getting our talent from? We need to work down the pipeline and not just focus on the “here and now” in individual companies. This requires, for example, partnerships with educational institutions. How do we get more women and girls thinking about industries like shipping? 

Annelise: I also think some bias exists around whether women are really suited for these male-dominated industries. Gender-related societal roles need to be re-examined. This lies deep within all of us – both men and women – and can limit our perception of our own and others’ potential. 

Poornima: We should focus on equipping our talent with the skills that are needed to work in an inclusive way with each other, and to understand and respect differences. As I write in my book, “In order for us to walk in someone else’s shoes, we first have to take off our own.” 

How can we, in your words, “take off our own shoes” to avoid being biased? 

Poornima: We need to allow ourselves to become vulnerable and for our biases to be pointed out. Often, bias comes from our childhood, education and early life experiences. The awareness that people around me are biased, just as much as I am, has the potential to diminish elements such as name-calling and stigmatisation. The understanding that we are all biased is crucial to really drive diversity, equality and inclusion forward. 

How can companies and individuals effectively reduce bias and make changes?

Poornima: Companies need to stop thinking about unconscious bias training as a tick-box-exercise. If people are really to understand their biases, it requires long-term thinking. Introspection and time for reflection are so, so powerful. Companies need to be willing to think of it as a long-term development of their talent across all levels.

Annelise: As a female leader, some of my passion for this area has come from having grown up in a corporate, hierarchical, male-dominated setting. There were a lot of bumps along the road and, as an individual, it’s easy to think there is something wrong with you. But it’s about speaking up when you disagree with something – and accepting that you may receive strong reactions for that. The fact that you receive pushback means that you are doing something significant, otherwise people would not react. In my career, the big hits and pushbacks that I took were the things that really mobilised me and made me more resilient. Dialogues with close colleagues helped me separate what was me and what was not me. Social support is key to creating change. This is a collective task.  

About Maersk Tankers

Maersk Tankers is a service company that provides commercial management solutions for shipowners in the tanker industry, operating one of the largest tanker fleets in the world. Our purpose is to pioneer shipping solutions for our partners and the planet. Founded in 1928, we have a century of expertise in management of tankers, which we use to develop and deploy solutions that help shipowners boost the economic and environmental performance of their vessels. Maersk Tankers employs approximately 300 employees in Denmark, Singapore, India and the U.S. and is headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark.