The proud Rotman graduate and current VP of Global Sales Solutions at LinkedIn sat down with us to discuss diversity, inclusion and belonging.

About eight years ago, Jonathan Lister (MBA ’00), took a look around his LinkedIn office and realized a very homogenous group of people was running the company. “People who looked like me,” he says.

The realization set Lister on a journey to rethink inclusion and belonging. Along the way, he became a supporter of the Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE), which promotes an understanding of gender inequalities and how they can be remedied in the world of business.

Why did you start supporting GATE?

I lead a team of about 1,000 people, and equality in the workplace is becoming a central issue for me. Not only is it economically the right thing to do and for sound business reasons — it’s good to have diverse and inclusive teams — more importantly, it’s the right thing to do. It’s not OK for people at work to feel marginalized or excluded from large and core functions.

I had been looking for ways to give back to the Rotman community for a number of years, and I wanted to do this in a way that aligned with how I feel about business and my personal goals. I was thrilled when I found GATE — the Institute is doing high-quality and groundbreaking primary research into gender inequality, and this is a problem I’m looking to help solve. It’s hands-down one of the top issues we have to solve in all business and commerce. The fact that business schools like Rotman are getting behind it is a huge step.

How has your involvement with GATE influenced your leadership at LinkedIn?

Although I’ve been focused on gender equality and diversity my entire time as a leader and, increasingly, for the past five or six years at LinkedIn, getting involved with GATE helped clarify my thinking in a few different ways.

First, it increased the urgency that I feel to build a more inclusive culture. Second, I’ve found GATE’s research on inequality and important issues like parental leave and work-life balance — as well as the wealth of data they brought to bear on the scope of these challenges — super helpful. And finally, I find it very inspirational to know that a team of very talented people is working on these important issues.

portrait of Jonathan Lister

Jonathan Lister, MBA ’00

What are some of the ways you and the team at LinkedIn have been able to advance diversity, inclusion and belonging?

At LinkedIn we think about this all the time. It’s a priority — and we only have a handful of priorities at LinkedIn. Diversity is high on that list for a couple of reasons.

First, as a platform LinkedIn’s vision was to create economic productivity for every professional in the world — and increasingly we are very focused on the word “every.” So that means we have to think about how to create diversity and inclusion in the platform itself. We want to be a company that not just builds a more inclusive workforce, but one that influences the entire economy and the entire workforce to be more diverse. We can help demonstrate the benefits of inclusion and diversity and build that into how companies work.

One of the ways we’ve been trying to do that over the years is by putting all our frontline managers through inclusive leadership training. And of course, making sure we have a diverse workforce. We’re reasonably good at hiring diverse employees at this point. These days we don’t proceed with a hire until we have a diverse slate of both interviewers and candidates. And once we’ve made the hire, we focus on retention. We have a very robust ERC community — Employee Resource Group — that’s very diverse, from sexual orientation to cultural background. So we spend a lot of time focused on our highest potential diverse employees to make sure they have what they need to be successful.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the work you are doing in this area?

It created a sense of urgency. Women, care workers, and underrepresented workers are feeling the pain of COVID disproportionately. We have been learning during the past year and a half. We’re attempting to ease that burden. For example, we’ve been quite successful at getting a greater proportion of men to take parental leaves. It’s been gratifying to watch men celebrate the fact that they got to take a longer parental leave and be with their families instead of not taking a leave, or taking as little time off as possible. It seems like a long overdue and super important cultural shift.

We’re also trying to anticipate and prepare for an eventual return to work where some staff — women principally — will have to continue to care for children or parents. That will be quite challenging for a lot of people, so we’re trying to be mindful about it and setting some governance around it.

GATE is focused not only on gender equality, but also its intersection with race, sexual orientation, indigeneity, ethnic origin, disability, socioeconomic status and other identities. Can you speak to the value of this broad approach?

One of the things we’ve learned as leaders through COVID-19 is that there are dominant groups and non-dominant groups, historically speaking. And we’re starting to give a voice to a lot of the non-dominant groups. Whether it’s based on sexual orientation, ethnic origin or gender, there is now — increasingly, and of course, imperfectly — an opportunity to give a voice to those groups that were traditionally non-dominant. And that’s what needs to be happening right now.

It’s challenging but important work, so we have to give people a voice, which is what we’re trying to do at LinkedIn, both inside the company and outside. And what I think is really fascinating and positive is that we’re also starting to see the intersection of professional and personal topics, where even a couple of years ago it was not okay, or even permissible in some cases, to talk about topics that were not considered professional on a platform like LinkedIn. And what we’ve seen over the last 18 months is — what we’ve encouraged, really — is the blending of these topics. Because of course it’s about being able to show up as an authentic person at work and do your best work without having to cover for the many things you may have felt before you needed to cover for. I think it’s a very positive trend, and we’re trying to accelerate it while keeping the conversations constructive.

What do you hope GATE will be able to help achieve for the business/tech community?

There is an opportunity to get more leverage by overlaying or mapping GATE’s research onto other research inside the tech community. The research that GATE has done around STEM and gender inequality inside the STEM community will be particularly useful to get past the surface and find the right solutions. This is important work, and it’s continuing to create momentum. There’s a tailwind right now to a lot of these issues, which means they’re improving faster than they did in the past, although of course much work remains to be done, and GATE is a key part of that.

Learn more about supporting GATE

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Originally published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

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