Occupy Diversity

filed under Cultural Change, Diversity Leadership.

Diversity and inclusion. After all these decades, the words are more prevalent but the picture is worse.

Women in the U.S. still make about three-fourths of what men make for comparable work. For those who have served in the military, especially in recent wars, stigma persists and unemployment in some areas is more than double that of civilians.  Services for the disabled are disappearing.  Young people cannot find a job no matter how responsibly they approached their education.  People of color have lost jobs in greater numbers and the wealth gap between black and white is worse than it’s been since World War II. Thirty years ago, the top 10 percent in the U.S. made as much as the bottom 30 percent; today the top 10 percent make as much as the bottom 90 percent – regardless of race, gender, age, ability or creed.

Factors internal and external to the diversity and inclusion (D&I) field are part of this picture.

Internal Factors

Individual enterprises have embraced good diversity practices with excellent results. However, three challenges inside D&I have kept the field from having its full impact:

  1. Definition. D&I professionals haven’t arrived at a clear and common definition about what diversity means and who is included.  Where there is consensus, that definition has not been articulated meaningfully to a broad audience.  Some simply prefer to avoid the D-word.
  2. Measures.  Consistent indicators of diversity success have yet to be adopted.  Measures are not meaningfully employed. Of course, it is harder to assess progress with regard to something that hasn’t yet been defined.
  3. Standards of practice.  There are “best diversity practices,” a strong business case and benchmarks within the field. There are also organizational exemplars. However, there is no agreement as to who “owns” diversity, and therefore no agreement as to what constitutes appropriate standards of practice:  things that those implementing diversity practices should and should not do.

External Factors

D&I efforts take place in a social context.  A number of factors in this external environment also act upon D&I.

A 2003 book, The Assault on Diversity by Lee Cokorinos, provides a well-documented analysis of social factors that have impinged on D&I results.  Cokorinos uses the narrow definition of diversity and describes a highly organized, well-funded, systematic and strategic effort to eliminate social justice gains in the United States dating from the early 1980s.  This effort has been consistently carried out by a network of think tanks, private foundations and legal advocacy groups that work in several areas:

  1. Political strategy.  Legislative action and ballot initiatives like California’s Proposition 209 and the copy-cat legislation it spawned in other states ended efforts to improve access for underrepresented groups in public employment, public education or public contracting.
  2. Legal strategy.   Targeted litigation and networking ensured the success of legal challenges to positive public policies, especially in state university systems such as in the case of Hopwood versus Texas.
  3. Media strategy.   Several standard-setting media tactics have been used over time to shape public discourse such as 1) the use of figureheads like black businessman, Ward Connerly and Latina activist, Linda Chavez, to head anti-affirmative action and “English only” initiatives; 2) language appropriation, with names like the Center for Equal Opportunity and the American Civil Rights Institute for groups that work solely to undo gains; and 3) opinion pushed out into the public discourse as “research,”  such as the works of Charles Murray, Richard Herrnstein, and the professionally discredited Paul Cameron.*  The current media environment takes these tactics to ever more sophisticated levels.

The “assault on diversity” has opened on extraordinary fronts in the years since Cokorinos published his book.

Next Stage Diversity Leadership

As diversity consultants Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe have noted, “This work is not for the faint-of-heart.”  Those doing the work of D&I going forward cannot hope to be successful without full awareness of the challenges.

These challenges will not be met by pot lucks and festivals alone; by training without accountability structures or by staff beholden to layers above.  In fact, it is possible for even the best-intentioned efforts to add to the problem by covering up what’s really wrong; by becoming complicit with practices that undermine the fundamental goal of D&I.

That goal is equity.

Beyond the data that illustrate superior performance by diverse teams and by companies with good diversity practices, there is growing evidence that equity may provide a basis for superior economic growth.**  In other words, a healthy team, a healthy business and a healthy economy ALL have something in common:  they depend on equity; on the active involvement and contribution of the many – not the few.

Today’s diversity leaders must answer profound challenges in order to help companies and communities achieve results.  Success most often involves a planned process of positive cultural change that takes place over time.  Clearly defined terms, meaningful measures of change and professional standards for implementation add value even as the field of D&I struggles to catch up with these ideas.  It is, however, in the discovery and careful telling of truth that real promise lies.  In so doing, diversity leaders may gain allies, build equity and thus ensure the sustainable business practices most suited to turbulent times.

It is in the most trying times that
our real character is shaped and revealed. – Helen Keller

*Murray and Herrnstein resuscitated long-over ideas about race-related deficiencies.  The Bradley Foundation contributed $100,000 to fund the 1994 publication of their book, “The Bell Curve,” which asserted that African Americans are genetically inferior to whites. (Bean, L.  2003.)  Cameron’s target was primarily the gay population.

**Treuhaft, S. & Madland, D. 2011.  “Prosperity 2050:  Is Equity the Superior Growth Model?”  Center for American Progress.  Thanks to Hamlin Grange of DiversiPro for this resource.

Portions of this blog were excerpted from recent conference and client presentations.  This work has been enriched by conversations with  Rob Jones and the network of brilliant writers, thinkers, consultants, trainers and tempered and untempered radicals he serendipitously convened.  Contact us for more info.

2 Responses to “Occupy Diversity”

  1. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi

    Great analysis and commentary on what it takes to make real organizational change! All of this must begin with a realization that we do not live in a post-racial, post-sexist, etc. world. This sentiment is difficult to overcome, at times, because of media’s strong saturation of this message.

  2. Jody Alyn

    Thank you for your comments, Kristina. And “media” today is such a Hydra-type beast. Cut off one head and two more grow back. More reason to look deeply into the forces at play and to have a multifaceted strategy for positive change.

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