The value of diversity

A crew that reflects our society helps business stay on course

As we approach a historic presidential election wherein we will either see the first African-American president—notwithstanding some historians’ claims that some previous presidents had black ancestors they did not acknowledge—or the first female vice president, one is inclined to wonder if we’ve finally fulfilled our nation’s promise of equality and opportunity for all. Or, to quote my kids from our family road trip days, “Are we there yet?”

The answer is, of course, “Not yet.” While one way or another, half of the presidential branch of the U.S. government will become historically diverse in January, by my count the other two branches will still have a long way to go. Fewer than 18 percent of our congressional representatives (House and Senate combined) are women, and fewer than eight percent are African-American. The statistics for the third branch, the Supreme Court, are even easier to compute.

Unfortunately, this disparity is played out in business as well. The fact of the matter is that today, only 17 (about 3 percent) of the Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs are people of color and only 13 (2.6 percent) are run by women. Many corporate boards are almost exclusively comprised of the same “boys’ club.” In fact, Caucasian males still hold a disproportionate number of leadership positions across the employment spectrum. And it doesn’t stop with gender and ethnicity; those with disabilities or differing sexual orientation have their own “glass ceilings” with which to contend.

Sadly, despite the promise of this election, most employers still have quite a long way to go before our management and leadership ranks are reflective of the society in which we do business. Is this because conscious, blatant discrimination is running rampant out there? Not usually. More often than not, the lack of representation of minorities and women in leadership positions is the result of unintentional, systematic factors; but they are factors that, if left alone, tend to self-perpetuate.

In many cases, there is an insidious “Catch 22” at work. According to DiversityInc magazine, one reason there are so few diverse senior leaders in business is that they don’t have role models in the senior leadership ranks upon which to pattern themselves. In other words, there are so few minorities and women in senior management because there are so few minorities and women in senior management! In a recent radio interview, Clarence Otis—one of only four black CEOs among the Fortune 500 Companies—said this is one of the biggest challenges facing people of color who want to advance into senior leadership.

Additionally, as human beings, we all tend to favor—or be more comfortable with—people who are just like us. So if the majority of individuals making promotion and selection decisions are white males, there is going to be a natural (but hopefully unintentional) tendency for the status quo to continue.

A recent survey of 1,600 women executives and executives of color confirmed that cultural and behavioral traits that differ from the white-male “norm” can tend to overshadow skills and talent, reducing the chances for advancement. In addition, perversely, sometimes characteristics or traits that are seen as desirable in one group are viewed as undesirable in another. For instance, an aggressive (maybe even combative?) male manager is often seen as a “go-getter.” The same traits in a female manager can earn her a reputation for being “pushy” or “abrasive.”

As I said, this is a systematic problem, and if left alone, will self-perpetuate.
Many white males jokingly complain that they are an “endangered species” or feel put upon by efforts to correct institutionalized disparities. They contend that equal treatment under the law is all that’s necessary to level the playing field. They themselves are not prejudiced, so there isn’t a problem, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

This point is demonstrated in the so-called “Bradley Effect.” Named for the African-American who lost the 1982 California governor's race despite being well ahead in voter polls, the Bradley Effect refers to a tendency on the part of voters to say in polls that they are “undecided” or likely to vote for a black candidate, but then, on Election Day, vote for his/her white opponent.

So we all want to seem unbiased and enlightened; but somehow in the privacy of that election booth, people tend to let other motivations prevail.
So what do we do?

When a ship is off course, do you get back on course by simply steering straight? Of course not; in order to get back on course, you have to overcompensate for a period of time. If you stay pointed straight ahead, you will continue to be off course.

So while non-discrimination laws on the books are helpful, they will never correct the problem without intentional efforts on the part of employers to proactively select and advance candidates from diverse backgrounds.

Here are some ways that employers can purposefully try to correct their course:

1) First and foremost, recognize at the highest levels of your company that diversity is not only “the right thing to do” but that it’s good for business. As illustrated in a previous article, great minds do not think alike, and having diverse leadership increases the chances for diverse ideas.

2) Make use of the many job boards dedicated to promoting a diverse candidate pool.   Diversity Directory MindExchange is a great resource if you’re just getting started (or just want to improve), with links to dozens of different job boards and diversity recruitment resources.

3) Make sure your commitment to diversity is stated on your website and that whatever level of diversity you currently have is featured in your recruitment materials. As stated above, it helps for potential candidates to know that their diversity is valued and to be able to visualize themselves in successful positions in your company.

4) Take advantage of referrals from successful, talented minority and female workers already in your employ. Again, people tend to prefer—and to socialize with—people from similar backgrounds and cultures. It’s highly likely that their social network represents a rich and diverse talent pool for you.

It’s a changing world out there, and smart employers will take aggressive actions to ensure that they take advantage of that changing world, rather than “staying the course.” After all, we know what happened to the last big ship that wasn’t able to correct its course fast enough…

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes any comments or questions via e-mail.