Building an Inclusion Institute

Excerpt from “The Dignity Mindset: A Leader’s Guide to Gender Equity at Work” by Susan Hodgkinson.

The concept of an Inclusion Institute goes much farther than the typical Learning and Development (L&D) program. Standard L&D works well for standard skills, but when it comes to diversity and inclusion, standard approaches often fall short. Short-sighted diversity training often gets pushed onto employees in response to a discrimination lawsuit against the company, a sexual harassment accusation against an executive, a critical news report, or some other precipitating event. These one-off training programs tend to be focused more on avoiding the next lawsuit than providing meaningful content. Thoughtful, effective gender equity learning events are disappointingly rare. Most seem designed more to check boxes than to facilitate an evolution in thinking or changes in an organization’s culture.

An in-house Inclusion Institute takes innovative, creative approaches to replacing biased belief systems with an empathetic Dignity Mindset. It facilitates changes of heart that move people from bias to a belief that everyone in the organization has the same worth and the same fundamental needs as everyone else.

An Inclusion Institute embeds a commitment to dignity and diversity as a structural beam in the organizations, not just as boxes that need to be checked. An Inclusion Institute is part brick and mortar—a real place within your facilities—and part virtual. It offers a wide range of resources, including experiences, classes, events, reading materials, workshops, and discussion groups. It provides support, as well as training, meeting people where they are and providing them with the understanding and knowledge that helps them explore and challenge their own thinking about bias. Although accountability plays an important part in an Inclusion Institute’s learning process, the most effective approaches are supportive and nonjudgmental rather than punitive. Most of the men who hold biased beliefs about women aren’t evil people; rather, they’re products of their upbringing and a lifetime of immersion in the swamp of hegemonic masculinity. The goal is not to punish them, but to create an atmosphere in which they can evolve their thinking in a natural way. Your Inclusion Institute’s goal is not to point fingers and lay blame; it’s to shine a light of empathy and understanding on bias and to make such a clear case in favor of dignity that moving toward it feels authentic, not forced. As a leader, you began your journey toward dignity with Tool #1, when you took the meaningful steps of exploring and challenging your own biases. Creating an Inclusion Institute in your organization expands that commitment beyond yourself and to your fellow executives and employees.

The Foundation of Inclusion: Building Confidence

An Inclusion Institute has two audiences: the people who experience bias (in this book, we’re focusing on women, but in an organization, this includes members of all groups subject to prejudice and marginalization) and the men whose words and actions are driven by male hegemonic power myths. Some programs and learning opportunities are geared toward one of those audiences, but others are appropriate for both.

Because confidence issues and imposter syndrome are major roadblocks for so many women who have experienced bias, building confidence is a foundational goal in nearly all Inclusion Institute programming for women. Confidence is the trust a woman has her abilities—for example, the ability to work a room during a networking event or to communicate strategic thinking. Imposter syndrome goes beyond confidence issues; it is an underestimation of the skills and abilities a woman possesses, and it carries with it a feeling that despite her education and experience, she’s really not as accomplished as the evidence suggests. People who experience imposter syndrome— which primarily affects women, but also strikes men—believe they’ve somehow fooled others into believing they possess intelligence or skills they actually don’t have, and that at any moment, they could be exposed as frauds.

Because confidence issues are fed by bias and the hegemonic masculinity that surrounds women their entire lives, learning strategies to build confidence belong in your organization’s Inclusion Institute. These strategies should be directed in three ways:

1. To support women who struggle with confidence issues.

2. To redirect men whose words and behaviors undermine women’s confidence.

3. To educate men to choose words and behaviors that create space for women to trust themselves and their abilities.

An effective way of supporting women who struggle with confidence issues is a training approach that is modeled after cognitive restructuring, a technique drawn from the psychological treatment known as cognitive behavioral therapy. Using cognitive restructuring, individuals learn to identify, challenge, and reframe cognitive distortions, which are thought patterns that cause them stress. Some of these unhelpful thinking patterns include all-or-nothing thinking (“If I don’t do this report perfectly, I’m a complete failure.”), overgeneralizing (“Everyone is smarter than I am.”), and disqualifying the positive (“Receiving a top score on my performance review doesn’t mean I’m succeeding.”).

Disqualifying the positive is an especially tenacious, prevalent thought pattern in women with imposter syndrome and confidence issues, especially after 360-degree feedback situations. Using a mental filter, they may ignore any positive feedback they receive and focus only on their “areas for development.” This is such an enormous mistake, because research has shown repeatedly that our strengths lead us to success and focusing on positive feedback allows us to expand our strengths even further. Owning one’s strengths is a critical step toward building confidence, so be sure your Inclusion Institute includes programs that provide training in cognitive restructuring and reframing automatic negative thoughts in a more positive, helpful way.

Excerpt from “The Dignity Mindset: A Leader’s Guide to Gender Equity at Work” by Susan Hodgkinson. For more information, visit:

Susan Hodgkinson is a trailblazer in personal branding and gender equity who founded The Personal Brand Company in 1994. She is the author of “The Leader’s Edge: Using Personal Branding to Drive Performance and Profit,” which received the Pinnacle Book Achievement Award, and her latest book “The Dignity Mindset: A Leader’s Guide to Gender Equity at Work.” She has a Master of Business Administration from Simmons School of Management and is on the executive education faculty there, at Boston’s The Partnership, at The Commonwealth Institute, and at other business schools and leadership institutes.

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