Intentional Change – Retooling for Equity’s Sake

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

October 18, 2021

The phrase ‘life-long learner’ has, perhaps, never been as relevant as it is today. People have to learn new ways of thinking, working, and communicating just to maintain their status quo. Experts suggest that technological and social evolutions will require the reskilling of up to a billion people so they can find work in the emerging re-engineered global economy.

Organizations are having to learn new things, too. Their long-entrenched strategies no longer meet the needs of their core constituents because the population of that constituency is rapidly becoming more diverse. To remain competitive, the enterprise must identify and address the hidden inequities and social injustices that are deeply embedded in its culture and that negatively impact its new consumer base. Companies can overcome these barriers to progress when they are willing to learn the full depth and breadth of their inequity problem and take steps to change their processes in response.


Identifying Diversity – It’s Not Just ‘Black’ and ‘White’

Creating a truly diverse workforce requires insight and awareness about what ‘diversity’ really means. For many leaders in ‘traditional’ companies (those managed and populated by nonminority leaders and workers), that definition is broader than they know. In many cases, the biases spring from long-held cultural standards that aren’t readily apparent, and those who hold them aren’t always aware of their inappropriateness.

For example, ‘White’ dominance is one such bias that is buried deep into the foundational cultures of many societal organizations. It remains entrenched through the use of ‘racially specific’ labeling, where companies that are affiliated with non-White owners or leaders are identified by that distinction. White-owned organizations such as banks, restaurants, etc., are identified simply by their business activity. A Black-owned business, however, is identified as a ‘black business.’ This skewed labeling convention obscures the fact that ‘White’ is also a racial identifier; add ‘White’ to the label of every business, and its dominance in most markets becomes more apparent.

While racial (White versus any other skin color) and gender (male vs. female) biases are often the most obvious, the list of other circumstances that generate and empower prejudice and discrimination is long:

Workplace discrimination continues to limit opportunities for females and minorities, keeping them in lesser-paying jobs with fewer opportunities for advancement.

Age discrimination eliminates the corporation’s opportunity to gain from years of experience and knowledge.

Disability discrimination eliminates valuable employee and leadership resources simply because some people function differently than others.

Pregnancy discrimination continues to impede economic and career progress for women. Between 1997 and 2011, pregnancy discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission jumped by 50%, and that volume of complaints hasn’t changed much since.

The elimination of biases from any organizational culture requires becoming aware of these and other hidden but insidious forms of discrimination.


Diversity = Economic Advantage

Pursuing diversity also makes good business sense. Companies that hold on to biases of any kind don’t often understand that that attitude also often erodes their economic advantages. These organizations typically don’t develop the ‘inclusive’ culture that supports every worker equally, regardless of their personal background or traits. Those workers respond by being less productive and less engaged in pursuing corporate success.

For example, one study found that, too often, corporate leadership believed its organization maintained a robust, inclusive culture, but its workers disagreed. A 2020 Accenture survey found that 78% of C-Suite respondents were proud of their ’empowered environment’ while only 32% of their workers reported feeling fully supported and included in their work environment. In another review, the French government determined that ubiquitous workplace discrimination within its fundamentally biased culture was also causing ‘staggering’ economic losses. Christian men were heavily favored for hiring over Muslim men by a four-to-one ratio, and women, in general, earned just 88% of their male counterparts for doing the same job. The analysis was done in 2015, and it concluded that the country could expand its GDP by up to 7% over 20 years by increasing access by women and minorities to training and skilled jobs.


Learning Lessons from Successful DEI Strategies

Decades of research may now be paying off as more companies pledge to improve their organization’s diversity. Many enterprises have been actively working on routing out inherent biases within their divisions, and some progress is being made, albeit not in all sectors:

College success numbers for employed Black Americans are rising, with approximately 20% holding Bachelors’s degrees. Black people also represent 12% of the total workforce, close to their 13.4% representation in the general population.

People with Asian ancestry are also educationally successful, with 65% of working Asians holding a Bachelors’s Degree.

However, the Latinx community hasn’t advanced as much, with only 22% of employed workers reporting achieving a Bachelor’s degree.

These successes and concerns indicate that corporate DEI progress is attainable when entities intentionally pursue those goals as an element of their fundamental culture. They confirm that intentionality must be an essential element in the strategy of organizations that are just now seeking to attain those goals. And media coverage of ongoing human tragedies caused by unfettered bias is driving the global impetus to pursue even faster a fairer corporate DEI culture.

Companies that want to improve their internal DEI successes can learn lessons from those that have already begun or mastered the process. One think tank suggests approaching a more robust DEI culture using a four-part strategy:

    1. Make it a moral imperative, not just a business case. Studies demonstrate that a diverse workforce can be more productive and profitable than one that is not. These days, however, people are looking for companies that share their values and intentionally work to benefit their communities as well as their shareholders.
    2. Encourage open conversations. In most cases, it’s more effective to use words that are meaningful but that are also uncomfortable. For example, using the word ‘race’ might be less comfortable than using the word ‘diversity,’ but it is also more specific in addressing the particular problem.
    3. Revise obsolete DEI programs. Recent events reveal the need for a more enlightened diversity perspective, rendering obsolete existing DEI plans developed years ago. They may also be siloed in HR departments and don’t reach the whole corporate sphere.
    4. Embrace the DEI culture through all career life stages. Becoming DEI-fluent means more than just hiring a diverse workforce. It also includes ensuring promotions, offering comprehensive retention benefits, and providing adequate career development resources for all employees.

These lenses provide well-informed guidance for companies seeking to improve their DEI culture.

The capacity to learn is becoming a crucial element of success for every entity – people, businesses, industries, and especially societies. The data suggest that improved corporate performance and profitability can happen when organizations learn what diversity is, why it’s essential, and how to entrench it into fundamental business practices. Now’s the time.


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