It is a new year, but the same old problems and challenges still need to be improved. The energy and momentum from all the unrest of 2020 is losing steam. Corporate leaders are putting the onus of DEI efforts onto employees of color and ERGs (employee resource groups) to do all the heavy lifting on top of their everyday job responsibilities. Often never being compensated for such important work – how does that sound fair? Additionally, because many executives still do not fully embrace, understand, nor value this work, they are not providing enough resources needed to sustain success. Need proof people are getting exhausted and burnt out while constantly facing resistance? The average tenure for CDOs (Chief Diversity Officer) is only 1.8 years with their employer vs 4.9 years for CEOs (chief executive officer)1.
As Donna Johnson, former CDO of Mastercard shared, “part of the problem is the George Floyd effect: when Diversity Officers become a solution to improving a company’s reputation, they join companies who are reacting, not strategizing.”
Please understand this takeaway: inequality, exclusion, and discrimination do not start at your first corporate job. That statement is not meant to shame or blame anyone but only to provide greater insight. As Beverly Tatum shares in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria; she compares racism as smog in the air. You may not have contributed to the smog, but we all are living and breathing it. And because of that, we all need to be mindful of our impact and intentionality to be part of this solution.
We need to look beyond the overstated importance for diversity such as: being able to bring your authentic self to work, diverse teams and companies are more profitable than non-diverse teams and companies, diverse groups generate new ideas and perspectives that then sparks innovation. Don’t get me wrong, these are all strong and valid arguments for reasons why we should commit to this cause. However, for me, it does not go deep enough because it misses one of the biggest functional reasons – it’s psychologically empowering!
We need to examine unconventional ROI.
1. In society, children of “dominate culture” (see below for definition) have been exposed to numerous examples of successful people who look like them throughout their lives. These examples take the shape of schoolteachers, principals, mayors, politicians, entrepreneurs, to Hollywood movies stars and main characters in books. The notion of being whatever you want to become in life becomes more accepted and reinforced when you consistently see success stories from people with similar backgrounds and physical traits as you.
Staying with his idea brings me to the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education. In this landmark court case, Thurgood Marshall would make the argument that separate but equal was psychologically damaging to children of color. In an experiment called the “doll test” performed by husband-and-wife psychologists, Mamie and Kenneth Clark, they presented young black children with dolls to play with that were both black and white. Overwhelmingly, the kids preferred the white dolls which they deemed as “good.” During this experiment Clark would discover “these children saw themselves as inferior and they accepted the inferiority as part of reality.”2
This ideology is still alive both in society and in the office – inferior vs. superior. When a toxic culture creates division that makes you question your self-worth and image, it becomes a major blow to your confidence and mental wellbeing. When diversity consultants, including myself, speak on the principles of belonging and inclusion, this is the concept we are addressing. We are asking for a workplace that is safe, celebrates both teamwork and individuality, and allows all people the opportunity to thrive and grow. Investing in people is good business. Period, full stop.
Brown Vs. Board of Education
Why does representation matter? Because it offers hope; and hope is the greatest driver in life. It’s motivating for kids and young adults to see people that look like them in positions of influence. This thought goes much further than any business case for DEI. You cannot be what you cannot see.
2. Power in numbers. One way to understand why more diverse talent is needed can be summed up in one world – balance. If your leadership is made up of ten people and there is only one person with a clear diverse background (i.e., person of color, LGBTQ member, has special needs, etc.), their opinions and ideas will be overshadowed. Policies that are ineffective or do not benefit everyone will continue to be created. The sad reality is when dominate culture is used to 100%....98% feels like a compromise. What does this compromise look like you might be asking? Well, it is having a handful of diverse leaders or employees that make up only a small fraction of the population within an organization.
Hire a Chief Diversity Office or Director as a solution? Would it surprise you to know that 81.3% of all CDOs are White?3 White people can absolutely work in this space, however, the point to unpack is why are those numbers not more equitable and balanced? If only a certain group is being highlighted, considered, or elevated then understanding this becomes the foundation of people’s frustration in the workplace. The workplace experience can be significantly different when hardworking high performers are constantly unseen, underappreciated, underpaid, and overlooked for new roles or promotions. It’s easy (and lazy) for companies to blame employees for high turnover rates but a lack of awareness of the root problem will always cause an organization’s downfall.
My last thoughts…. let us stop with the cookie cutter “solutions” and have a much larger conversation. Good enough is not good enough. Organizations need to reinvent their strategy and efforts. Leaders need to be more engaged in these actions. While we all should respect authority and our leaders in power, we also must challenge them as well. I am a believer in dismantling social hierarchy and those with fabricated statuses. I urge organizations to track data and stats, measure themselves, and benchmark it. We need to rethink and expand our work practices, behaviors, and policies. The fact is skills can be taught. What can’t be taught are values, the ability to communicate, good time management, a growth mindset, or a strong work ethic.
*Dominate Culture is the group whose members are in the majority or who wield more power than other groups. In the United States, the dominant culture is that of white, middle-class, Protestant people of northern European descent.