Paulette Cohen – An Experienced and Inspiring Diversity & Inclusion Leader Aiming to Create an Equal and Safe Work Environment

The 10 Most Influential People in Diversity and Inclusion 2023

Paulette Cohen is the Head of Diversity & Inclusion, UK, Europe, Middle East at Barclays. She is experienced in working at a strategic level in both the corporate and charitable sectors to deliver national and global initiatives that lead to social change. Responsible for developing and delivering campaigns within Barclays diversity and inclusion strategy, Paulette also has lead responsibility for the disability agenda and ‘This is Me’ mental health campaign across Barclays globally.

Being established as a D&I leader now, Paulette says she has had some extraordinary opportunities throughout her career. Her background was in marketing and communications in the not-for-profit sector – including being the Communications Director for Save the Children. However, her experience in international development took her to the Barclays citizenship team where she led partnerships focusing on women’s economic empowerment, and youth employability programmes for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and under-represented communities. “These are, of course, strong foundations aligned to diversity pillars so my experience was eminently transferable to the world of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion,” she states.

Every leader has a unique definition of success.

Paulette’s personal perspective of success is when she can go home at the end of the day and feel that someone’s life has been made just a little better by something she has done – that could be a decision she’s made, or a conversation she has had. She feels this is, perhaps, a little idealistic, however she says that it has held true throughout her career and will continue to shape her approach as a DEI leader in the future.

“I very much feel that as DEI professionals we have to use influence to affect change and a successful result is when we have thoughtfully, but intently, nudged people towards an outcome that can truly have a positive impact the lives of others,” she says. From a business angle, she feels success is about taking the decisions that will secure the best outcomes – for the company, the people who work in it, and the communities it serves.

Challenges can be steppingstones to success

The importance of the work done in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion increases every day, and the expectations to build an inclusive and equitable workplace are greater than ever. Changing demographics and the demand for the very best talent pose new challenges. And key stakeholders, including investors, regulators, clients and employees are looking for tangible impact and evidence of progress as an indicator of organizational resilience and long-term sustainability. It’s part of the increasing emphasis on the ‘social’ component of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals.

“Challenges we face can include a lack of understanding about the business case for DEI, and the expectations for swift solutions to achieve cultural change. I’ve learnt that it is vital to present the business imperative for DEI as well as acknowledge that it is a strong agent for social change. We also need to help people understand there are no quick solutions for building an open and inclusive workplace and that we must take a long-term approach. However, there are milestones we can set along the way and we need to be transparent in the progress we are making,” explains Paulette.

Barclays and its services under Paulette’s leadership

Barclays is committed to build representative and inclusive culture where people of all backgrounds are represented, feel they belong and can bring their whole selves to work. They recognize that being a diverse and inclusive company is an integral part of their success, and this success is built on their ability to listen to, and understand, a variety of perspectives and embrace diversity enabling the business to provide the best service to their customers and clients.

As a company, they focus on six intersectional agendas – Disability, Gender, LGBT+, Multicultural, Multigenerational, Socio-economic inclusion. “I have a double brief” says Paulette “I am responsible for driving Diversity, Equity and Inclusion across all of the agendas and business units within the UK, Europe and the Middle East. I also have the global brief for our disability agenda, which has the vision for Barclays to become one of the most accessible and inclusive companies.”

Paulette’s contribution in redefining diversity and inclusion at Barclays

Barclays has had a long-term commitment to DEI and building an equitable and inclusive culture. However, diversity and inclusion strategies are constantly evolving and hence they need to be refreshed as the approach becomes more mature. Barclays has become more business-focused, and also more targeted in meeting the needs of their diverse colleagues and the communities they serve.

Paulette gives two recent examples:

  • We have increased transparency and accountability – in 2020 we launched an Inclusion Index to monitor year on year improvements, along with a personal inclusion objective embedded in every colleague’s annual work plan.
  • We have also evolved our colleague engagement survey to become much more granular, gathering information across protected characteristics, to better understand the views of our diverse communities. It means we can put in place targeted support that levels the playing field for everyone to succeed, even though they start from a different place. In February 2021, we launched our inaugural D&I Annual Report sharing this information with investors and other key stakeholders.

Paulette was also actively involved in scaling up a Barclays-inspired campaign called ‘This is Me’, challenging the stigma of mental health through the power of story- telling. Started by nine Barclays colleagues, this has now been adopted by over 400 other companies across regions in the UK and within Asia reaching millions of employees.

Influencing a change in this generation as a D&I leader

DEI leaders have a responsibility, and the opportunity, to shape the way the next generation value difference and see the strengths that the many elements of an individual’s identity can bring. They know that diverse teams and an inclusive approach lead to higher-performing, more resilient and sustainable businesses, and a more empathetic and equitable society. The next generation already appreciate this. “We see this as they embrace allyship, wanting to learn about the lived experience of others and support them to unlock their talents,” Paulette says.

At Barclays, there’s been a surge in the membership of their Employee Resource Groups (over 25,000 members) and their associated allies initiatives – Spectrum allies for the LGBT+ community, Reach Purple Champions aligned to supporting those with a disability, mental health or neurodivergent condition, and a large cohort of Male Allies who support gender equality through the role they can play, both in and outside the workplace.

The best recognition Paulette received as a D&I leader.

“I should say that it was when I was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) by the Queen in the 2022 New Year’s Honours list for services to diversity and inclusion and business,” says Paulette. She feels that was recognition for the work of the incredible teams she’s been part of. However, the recognition she most valued was seeing a colleague who had shared her ‘This is Me’ story of her own mental health challenges be given an award. “It’s the people on whose lives our DE&I work have an impact that really deserve recognition and that make me incredibly proud,” she states.

Staying motivated to maintain a work-life balance.

Paulette does not see a huge division between her personal and professional life, mainly because she feels that she works in a field where her personal beliefs and commitments fill her working day. She states that the ultimate goal for her is to enjoy what she does and feel it is making a really positive contribution.

She is hugely motivated by the achievements of others, and when a small change happens that can have a big impact. Paulette believes that celebrating such successes as a team is a key motivator. Outside of work, she spends as much time as she can walking her new puppy – she claims that it is a great leveller and gives her time to reflect and recharge.

Key responsibilities as the Head of Diversity & Inclusion

Paulette describes herself as optimistic and says that her days at work are multi-faceted – juggling inputs across the DEI portfolio within the business, and supporting external interventions focused on disability, mental health and neurodiversity.

There is no regular day, but it could include: embedding gender and ethnicity ambitions into one of the DEI business councils; contributing self-identification insights to the UK Government’s Disability Confident scheme; chairing a national ‘This is Me’ steering group for the Lord Mayor’s Appeal charity; working with Spectrum Barclays’ LGBT+ ERG to deliver the Stonewall benchmark; holding a career coaching conversation with a graduate to help them focus on their transferable skills. Paulette states that they all would genuinely happen in one day!

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