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A definitive guide to more inclusive outcomes

Search 2.0


A definitive guide to more inclusive outcomes

Search 2.0


A definitive guide to more inclusive outcomes


When the makeup of a leadership team within an organization differs from the broader population, it creates a situation where certain groups are underrepresented.

Unfortunately, current approaches taken by organizations to address underrepresentation are often narrow in scope, focusing on immediate concerns rather than taking a thoughtful and comprehensive approach that is future-proof.

Attempting to address every category deserving attention in a comprehensive manner is challenging and may not be feasible. Underrepresentation takes on various forms, not only in terms of numbers but also in terms of structural, awareness, and societal factors. These factors influence the level of urgency or apathy toward taking action.

Context setting


Determining a comparative set for a particular organization is a challenging task with no precise answers. For example, a comparative set of the general adult world population is likely to be an unrealistic and unreasonable aspiration for most organizations since their scale and scope is likely to be more limited. It’s logical to consider a comparative set that directly pertains to the organization in question. However, there could still be several relevant comparative sets, such as customers, employees, the local population where the organization operates, the typical profile of professionals in that field and the societal expectations in their jurisdictions. Each organization may have unique factors that influence their choice of comparison set.


Not all forms of underrepresentation are inherently undesirable. Society often places value on certain intellectual, experiential, moral, and social qualities in its leaders, while disfavoring those they consider to be undesirable. It is commonly accepted that society expects its leaders to possess qualities that surpass the average standards in desirable criteria. Additionally, it is widely recognized that certain factors, such as natural ability, can provide people with advantages over others in particular fields of work. Society expects and allows for a certain amount of variance among individuals.


For underrepresentation to be identified and addressed, it first needs to be categorized. Some categorization is permanent or near-permanent, such as biological gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, across most adult lifespans. Some, such as age, are transient categories where individuals naturally move from one into the other. Some are graded in terms of degrees (e.g., disabilities or neurodiversity) and some may vary during a lifetime and may be linked to life stage and even personal choice (e.g., religious beliefs, marital status, gender identity, parenting status, socioeconomic circumstances). Intersectionality, which is identifying or being identified with more than one underrepresented category, can further amplify disadvantages that are faced by individuals.


It is helpful to consider the continuum that ranges from a category to a group when understanding social dynamics. A “category” is the sharing of certain characteristics with others, however each person may not feel a sense of association or kinship with others in the same category. A “group” implies a greater feeling of association or belonging among its members. To what level are members of a category or a group willing to be perceived as a unified entity? What would be the likely consequences of these perceptions, and what would be the likely responses from those who belong to other categories or groups who may have different or competing interests? Unfortunately, some of these important nuances are glossed over or go unnoticed.


Problems arise when individual prospects are enhanced or depressed in systemic and structural ways. Causality is hard to pinpoint in each individual case, but when variances in outcomes are collated across a large set, patterns become evident. It becomes clear that individuals who do better or worse tend to share certain characteristics.

Ultimately, any form of endemic underrepresentation can be corrosive to the resilience and legitimacy of our societal structures. Causes can range from actively discriminatory (positive or negative) behaviors and practices to the biases that exist in individual and group-based decision-making. Social norms dictate the degree to which behaviors and practices are explicit, discreet, or even unconscious. For example, gender discrimination may be practiced at a discreet or unconscious level, while age discrimination could be more overt. Similarly, some actions, such as parents investing in their children’s economic prospects, are generally considered socially acceptable but doing the same for the children of acquaintances and distant relatives is increasingly equated with nepotism. Suffice to say, situations and attitudes shift over time as the sensitivities and sensibilities of societies evolve.

Categories of Underrepresentation

The “big 3” – Gender, Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation

On the “big 3” topics of gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, we offer a highly summarized overview, as plenty of excellent material exists. The most widely understood category is gender. Gender representation in senior roles should eventually settle at about 50 percent. There is a debate on whether gender balance will always tend toward 50 percent in every profession, as current data show that men and women seem to choose certain professions persistently and disproportionately over others. Such debates have an impact on talent pipelines within each profession. However, they are not always directly relevant to senior leadership settings that call for the development of capabilities that both genders possess or can develop. This is especially true as the number of senior leadership roles is limited. It is not necessary to have a 50-50 intake at the entry-level to aspire to a 50-50 representation at the top.

Similar arguments hold true for both ethnicity and LGBTQ+. Though variances in terms of role preferences and career choices may exist, as with gender, ultimately the makeup of the senior leadership population should proportionally reflect that in wider society across these categories.

Those with an opposing view may make an argument that aspiring to a higher proportion of leadership positions as compared to entry-level positions for any category of leaders is a distortion of meritocracy. However, this goes to the heart of the equity/equality continuum. In our view, the benefits outweigh the risks in terms of the transformative effect of positive signaling, role-modeling, and inspiration that this gives to the new generation of incoming leaders—as well as for the choices they make and the roles they aspire to.


Some of the most egregious forms of underrepresentation are those of micro-minorities. Because they are too distributed and too contextual to different parts of the globe to be meaningfully indexed, it is difficult to comprehend the level of challenges they face. However, we encourage companies to look long and hard not just at the “major minorities” but also the micro-minorities in their situations (i.e., the minorities who may have been ignored or marginalized by mainstream society and are too small in proportional numerical terms to have a powerful voice or capture the popular imagination). Examples could be native, aboriginal, or tribal populations, or other ultra-marginalized categories that are not part of mainstream economic conversations.


Age deserves special attention because it is a form of discrimination openly practiced in senior executive leadership ranks in most countries, typically starting in the early 50s and becoming particularly acute after the mid-50s.

An organization is entitled to expect physical and mental fitness from its senior leaders for them to be able to execute their roles effectively. Physical fitness is linked to genetic makeup and how well one has taken care of their health over the years. It is flawed to assume that a 49-year-old will be automatically “better” than a 56-year-old, unless a qualified physician’s report certifies the same.

Similarly, on mental capabilities, studies have shown that fluid intelligence (the ability to solve novel problems) starts declining from early adulthood with the aging process. Meanwhile, crystallized intelligence (the ability to deduce solutions using previous experience) continues to grow with age. A younger candidate may have higher fluid intelligence but lower crystallized intelligence, and an older candidate the opposite.

There is an urgent need for introspection by clients and consultants along these lines.


Disabilities are often overlooked in senior leadership discussions. The category itself is different by nature than others that are more binary. In the UK, the definition covers any long-standing illnesses, conditions, or impairments that reduce one’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities—including different types of mental and physical manifestations, from diabetes to depression. Severity is a further subcategorization. Other nations may have different ways of defining and capturing information.

In aggregate, as a percentage of the population, the numbers could be staggeringly high. Organizations would benefit from understanding the categorizations and subcategorizations relevant to them, have a point of view on their organizational goals, and find a strategy that works for them across the globe. Today, the lack of data and talent intake of people with disabilities at the entry-level severely restricts the talent pipeline into senior roles. On the other hand, if you develop a disability during your career and are already in relatively senior roles, there may be insufficient support in the workplace.

Fortunately, there are senior leaders with disabilities who are role models, and it is encouraging to see them increasingly coming together as powerful champions for change.


Neurodiversity lags in terms of appreciation and awareness. It refers to people whose brains function differently and who experience and interact with the world in different ways. These differences manifest in the way they think, learn, behave, and relate to others as compared to neurotypical individuals. It is associated with people on the autism spectrum or with dyslexia, dyspraxia, or ADHD. As a category, however, it is often mistakenly included in disability statistics.

Adding to the complexity, senior leadership roles require complex collaboration, influencing, stakeholder management, and communication skills, which may not be the natural strengths of all neurodiverse individuals, depending on the nature and extent of their neurodiversity.

Much more needs to be done in the coming years to elevate the level of awareness and inclusion, and the development of alternative leadership pathways for neurodiverse leaders.


Religion has been a sensitive topic in the corporate world. Religious identity is more akin to a group than a category, perhaps more so than gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or others. There are also historical, social, political, legal, and even constitutional differences in how countries ​ view both majority and minority religions that are too complex to explore here.

In practice, in most modern global organizations, there is an expectation that religious affiliation and identity will be downplayed in the interest of ensuring a cohesive workplace atmosphere. Social aspects of religiosity are sometimes encouraged and even jointly celebrated by colleagues across different faiths. However, most organizations are hesitant to discuss and embrace religious identity in an inclusive way—including for those who don’t profess any faith.

Socioeconomic status

Senior leaders from around the world should place socioeconomic criteria at the heart of their DEI strategies. It offers the tantalizing possibility of maximizing societal benefits, which would naturally extend to those in several of the categories described above who are statistically disproportionately likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged. However, the topic is barely on the fringes, if at all.

The name of the category itself makes it clear that it is twofold. Social disadvantage and economic disadvantage are not the same. Although often positively correlated, there could be situations where the two diverge for an individual. It is possible that over time the category naturally splits into two as it moves up the maturity curve in terms of depth of understanding and sophistication of interventions. For the foreseeable future, it is probably best to continue to treat it as a dual category. As it is, definitions have been tricky, data-gathering even more so, and there is also the issue of timing.

Socioeconomic circumstances are not static and can evolve during a lifetime. In addition, the onus of a socioeconomic situation starts to shift from being completely beyond one’s control (e.g., pre-adulthood) to being at least partly determined by personal factors (e.g., post-adulthood). Most socioeconomic analyses tend to focus on conditions during pre-adulthood to determine relative advantage or disadvantage. Common criteria include education, income, occupation, location and family structure, but they can be difficult to track and have varying levels of reliability. sources, and response levels. For example, the Social Mobility Commission in the UK found that “What was the occupation of your main household earner when you were aged about 14?” was the most reliable question in terms of being able to compare people across countries and age brackets and elicited the highest response rates. Better and more-varied criteria will undoubtedly evolve as awareness and seriousness about the issue grows.

Organizations that do not embark on a purposeful and ambitious journey to bring socioeconomic status from the fringes to the core of their DEI efforts can no longer claim to be leaders in the space and will likely find themselves increasingly and justifiably on the back foot.

About the Author

Your Egon Zehnder Team

Special thanks to colleagues across the Firm who contributed their knowledge and time to this project:

Michael Ensser, Edilson Camara, Helen Crowley, Cagla Bekbolet, Abed Saleh, Fiona McGauchie, Yasushi Maruyama, Chie Iida, Neil Waters, Yan Geng, Namrita Jhangiani, Shilpa Rangaswamy, Lena Kilee, So-Ang Park, Kine Seck Mercier, Sandra Garcia, Ingrid van den Maegdenberg, Marike Kuin, Pam Warren, Dede Orraca-Cecil, Cynthia Soledad, Angela Pegas, Fabio Nunes, Gizem Weggemans, Mark Longworth, Charlotte Wright​ , Obinna Onyeagoro, Paul Havranek, Christian Schmidt, Loula Lefkaritis, Alessandra Tosi, Carol SingletonSlade, Claire Thomas, Anthony Cavanough, Ashley Summerfield, and Andrew Roscoe.

Global Diversity Specialist:​ Katrin Sier
Research:​ Ryan Hoffmann, Raminder Kaur, Kathrin Heinitz, Nathia Pratista
Editorial Team:​ Cheryl Martel, Luisa Zottis
Design Team: Richard Khuptong, Markus Schuler, Kamaljit Marwaha, Vijayakumar Shanmugamani, Dapinder Pal Singh Bahl
Digital Team:​ Amadeu Porto, Becky Neems, Joanna Scheffel, Aditya Gupta, Arnab Kar
Executive Assistant:​ Hannah Hughes