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In a demographically changing world, research regularly reported by McKinsey and Forbes shows that uniformity is not great for business. A growing body of evidence shows diverse and inclusive companies outperform heterogeneous peers. There’s no simple, causal relationship—but across business sectors, research patterns show innovation and market-share increase in companies with more diverse leadership.
Because money talks even louder than white guys at the water cooler, “diversity” is now a buzzword on every CEO’s radar. But a common mistake is thinking that hiring a more diverse workforce is all there is to it. “Our data shows that most company leaders—primarily white, heterosexual males,” recent research report from BCG on flawed approaches found, “still underestimate the challenges [their] diverse employees face.”
“No one has it all figured out yet,” says La’Wana Harris about the word “diversity,” to which she’s devoted her career. “Some talk about diversity as inclusion, or diversity as equity, but I like to think diversity is also about belonging. Belonging is a big one.”
Harris is an ICF-credentialed coach who has created inclusion-awareness workshops, cultural competence programs and trainings in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia and South Africa. Her new book, Diversity Beyond Lip Service, from business publisher Berrett-Koehler, is a corporate coaching guide for challenging bias, still too often denied within male-dominated business cultures.
In 2015, McKinsey & Company reported that corporate executive teams in the U.S. averaged only 16 percent women. According to Catalyst, an organization focused on women’s leadership in business and on corporate boards, by 2018 U.S. women were nearly half the labor force but held only 40 percent of all management positions; often, these are middle-management jobs. They noted that the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the fewer women you’ll find.
Like white men, white women still have an advantage: of the 40 percent of managers, nearly a third were white women; but Latinas were only six percent, black women under four percent and Asians only two percent. Far from universal, gender experience carries unique, intersectional stresses.
Unless company leaders actively pursue issues of perception, inclusion, equity and bias, work teams may only sort out into camps or fall apart. That’s the reason corporations hire diversity coaches like Harris to raise awareness of race, culture and gender while discovering deeper values, beliefs and motivations.
In a recent interview, Harris pointed out that talking diversity isn’t easy in today’s polarized political climate: Her client worry, she told Ms., that “‘I won’t know what to say,’ or ‘What if I offend someone? Or ‘I kind of would like to express myself, but in this environment, I wouldn’t dare.’”
One sensible reason for inaction and silence is that people don’t want to be called out or dropped from the favor and privilege of the dominant culture. “No one wants to be excluded. What’s important is that we examine privilege and how it plays out in the power construct. When you talk about oppression and real bias, people will go into their own corners and come out swinging and fail to find common ground. But it isn’t ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The question is how do we begin to move forward as an organization? We don’t make excuses; we don’t deny privilege. People like to talk about this in one dimension—white heterosexual male privilege— but everyone has a measure of privilege. I’m a black woman, and I’m a Christian, so I have religious privilege in America. In marginalized communities, I’m privileged by my education and my income.”
She says privilege is part of a much larger system that exists to protect power, and the unconscious biases supporting it. “That said, the goal of coaching is not to remove workplace privilege and bias, impossible anyway. Rather, let’s meet people where they are, so that they can do the self-work necessary to acknowledge their truth and how it affects their decisions. I’ll want to understand your diversity and inclusion story as a white man, too.”
White male diversity?! Does it exist? Everyone inherits a DNA shaped by a set of expectations rooted in one’s cultural context. Influences can be resisted or embraced in conscious and unconscious ways depending on circumstances and personality. Harris’s program structures, described in her book, are rooted in deep questions and self-reflection. One of the most challenging is: “What is the story you are telling yourself about….?” Fill in the blank.
Harris advises companies upfront to make room for controversy and conflict. “Tell the truth,” she says, “even when it hurts.” Just as white men don’t want their career judged as the product of unfair advantages, women and people of color don’t want to be judged as tokens to meet a quota. “As part of a team,” she says, “we all want to be acknowledged as qualified, valuable contributors. The question is, how can we use our talent and privileges to move the organization forward?”
The politically correct management perspective might be: “I am a white male, and I know that we need to increase diversity and inclusion.” But Harris insists on allowing more honest conversations, without shaming and blaming. What if mainstream management admitted something as true as: “I am a white male, and I know that in theory we need to increase diversity and inclusion. But the current power construct works for me. I’ve had a thriving career. Honestly, I don’t see what’s so wrong about that; I’m very comfortable.”
Still, honesty without action amounts to lip service. While leaders can and do discover creative ways to self-reflect and share power by welcoming differences, in a competitive world, where time and money count, diversity’s more personal work can seem at odds with short-term business objectives. In 2016, for instance, Apple shareholders rejected a proposal to prioritize diversity efforts, saying changing their leadership team, 72 percent male, would be “unduly burdensome and not necessary.”
I much admire Harris’s work and worldview, but I am unable to be as noble. I confess to feeling disgusted when, in August, our biggest 200 CEOs issued a Business Roundtable signed statement declaring “shareholder interest,” or profit, is not all there is to business. Led by JP Morgan CEO Jerry Dimon, paid $31 million a year, and signed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who has already broken his pledge, the group’s shameless discovery of a new world of insight claims the environment and workers matter too.
Duh. You think?