Diversity Dinner - The Italian Grub

01 October 2018 - By: Jonathan Smith

Diversity Dinner  - The Italian Grub

Diversity Dinner_
Kristen Anderson speaking at the SEB Florence 2018 Diversity Dinner. Photo: Simon Callaghan.

By Jonathan Smith

Diversity Dinner, the popular dining and discussion session held every SEB Annual Meeting, took on an appropriately Italian theme in Florence this year, with a debate centred around the Italian pasta company Barilla.

As we learned that evening, even well-established companies with well-known products struggle with maintaining diversity in their corporate structure, and the experience of Barilla is a fascinating example of how to address this problem.


The host of the session, Teresa Valencak, announced the invited speaker, Kristen Anderson, the Chief Diversity Officer for Barilla. With a background in Chemical Engineering in industry, Kristen presented a candid talk about the family-owned company, which was founded an incredible 141 years ago. “The company sells traditional Italian food and culture,” Kristen related. “Although its strongest market is Italy, it is expanding worldwide.” Barilla is thus expanding from its Italian roots, requiring adaptation to its international market.

In the past, the traditional family background of Barilla has caused conflict with the international focus on diversity. “Five years ago, Guido Barilla, chairman of the company, infamously declared on an Italian radio show that he wouldn’t feature‘gay family’ in Barilla’s advertising, due to his beliefs,” explained Kristen. Although there was little reaction to these comments in traditional Italy, the global media was scandalised, causing bad publicity and calls for boycotts of the company.


As the 2013 scandal swept through news outlets, Barilla’s management, including the family owners, took steps to change the company’s culture and image. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Barilla in particular, Claudio Colzani, used this incident to spur the company’s shift towards diversity and inclusion. “Like many companies in Italy, Barilla’s employees were predominantly traditional Italians who wouldn’t mix with other groups,” recalls Kristen. “We thus formed a special committee for diversity and inclusion, and launched internal initiatives raising employees’ awareness of disability, Lesbian/ Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT), gender, multicultural and generational diversity.”


Kristen emphasised the scale of the changes undertaken by Barilla. “Just changing the public relations wasn’t enough; our initiatives strove to completely reform the company’s culture and image.” For example, Barilla have collaborated with large diversity nongovernmental organisations for advice, implemented flexible working locations for disabled employees and started initiatives on improving the gender balance of the workforce, an especially large challenge for Italy with its historically male-dominated working culture. Kristen continued: “We aim to be a positive example for diversity and inclusion; these efforts aren’t so common in the corporate world.”

“Did these efforts change the companyculture within the workforce?” This important question came from a member of the audience during the talk. To this, Kristen honestly replied that the beginning stages have been slow. “Our strategies meet some friction, depending on the cultures we address,” she explained. However, she also noted that Barilla’s productivity was climbing, indicating that these initiatives may be having a positive effect on the company.


After this provocative talk, the audience members discussed the best ways to promote diversity in their own organisations. Several suggested promoting diversity and different languages on social media. However, the real challenge is to engage those who, for example, aren’t interested enough to attend corporate diversity sessions. “One simple way is simply encourage normal interactions between people of different walks of life,” Kristen remarked.

Kristen’s talks and discussions showed that, in terms of diversity awareness, Barilla has come a long way since its scandalous wakeup call in 2013. Though ongoing, its trajectory shows that we can’t take inclusion for granted; it requires effort and has clear benefits, as Kristen concluded: “Under the right circumstances, inclusion actually improves an organisation’s productivity, morale and even environmental impact; it is worth the effort.”


1. Public Engagement: a Practical Guide http://senseaboutscience.org/activities/public-engagement-guide/
2. VoYS Network: senseaboutscience.org/voys

Category: Equality and Diversity
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Jonathan Smith

Jonathan Smith served as the SEB’s press intern for the annual meeting in summer 2016, and has since contributed articles for the SEB’s bulletin. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Bristol, he is currently studying for a PhD in locust neurobiology in the University of Leicester and runs an active Twitter account communicating his work.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/j_ivories