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  • Writer's pictureSetche Kwamu-Nana

Is investing in diversity like setting your money on fire?


“Diversity programs don’t work! Just unnecessary red tape!” some managers sometimes complain when we first meet.

I understand that sentiment and there is some truth to it. When we do piecemeal diversity initiatives, it can seem like we are spinning our wheels; hardly noticing change in people’s lives or business results. Like with every other discipline, we can’t randomly throw a couple of darts at a board and expect miracles.

However when it comes to diversity, some of us tend to think a diversity training/program or two should fix centuries of inequities, exclusion, and injustices and deliver the desired business outcomes.

But that’s not the case.

Diversity programs are more effective when organizations take a holistic approach, adopting the framework of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) and aligning the these strategies to organizational goals. Below are some pitfalls common in diversity program management, which make it harder to deliver results:

  • Hiring one person (or just a handful) from an underrepresented group, and expecting them to represent the diverse experiences and perspectives of the whole group.

  • Hiring blindly for representation from underrepresented communities without diligently evaluating for job fit and relevant skills. This can lead to performance issues that end up reinforcing unhealthy stereotypes about those communities.

  • Hiring qualified candidates from underrepresented populations, but failing to provide developmental opportunities and the support needed to help alleviate the hidden challenges to thriving in one’s job while being in the minority. This can also lead to performance issues and high turnover, thus reinforcing stereotypes.

  • Emphasizing hiring for culture fit (which focuses on what a candidate is lacking) with little room for culture add (which focuses on what a candidate can bring to the table). This can perpetuate group think and hinder expression of different perspectives. (For more on this see How To Hire For Culture Add vs. Culture Fit)

  • Increasing diversity without concurrently striving to create an inclusive environment. When organizations conflate inclusion with engagement, they miss opportunities to create a culture of inclusion and belonging for everyone. Without that, leveraging diversity is much harder and could even backfire.

  • Engaging in diversity and inclusion efforts, but ignoring building equity in the long run — i.e. failure to start removing the visible and invisible systemic and structural barriers in our processes, policies, and organizational and group norms. These barriers make diversity, inclusion, and accessibility harder to realize.

  • Designing IDEA solutions without the perspectives and leadership of diverse people.

I consider the last two to be the most important, so let’s explore them further.

Many diversity programs do the equivalent of painting the barriers to equity with different colors (putting diverse people in charge of upholding the same systems). We fix the cracks in the barriers but don’t work toward removing the barriers in the long run. We believe the systems should be kept in place because they have been this way all along. But in reality, many of these barriers were manufactured, and are not natural or accidental and they are doing what they were designed to do and favoring those they were designed to favor.

Some examples of such barriers include:

  • Interviewing processes designed to favor those who are more outgoing, not necessarily more qualified.

  • Compensation processes designed to favor those who are better negotiators, not necessarily better workers.

  • The many barriers black women face in corporate America that hinder their recruitment, engagement, development, and advancement.

  • Student debt –the racial barrier of college tuition: Prior to the 1970s college was free or almost free. Tuition started skyrocketing to crushing levels as black enrollment began to increase as new laws passed prohibiting enrollment discrimination based on race and gender (but not on affordability). Today, though the student debt crisis disproportionately affects African-Americans, it significantly affects all races. This is an example of the communal cost of tolerating or ignoring systemic barriers when they don’t yet affect us.

So, will simply removing the structural barriers fix all the sources of disparities and isms that plague our companies and society? No. Our IDEA strategies should be an integrated approach that drives both individual and systemic transformation — lasting transformation of hearts, minds, systems, and behaviors. Individuals develop and perpetuate systems. When we change our paradigms, we can change our institutions and systems because we can finally see what they do to some communities.

If the thought of changing our paradigms and reimagining our systems to be fairer, seems exhausting to you, I understand the feeling. American writer, and one of today’s leading voices on the social and economic impact of Internet technologies, Clay Shirky said, “When we are accustomed to privilege, equity can feel like oppression.” Some of us are OK with inequities, so long as it’s not us it’s crushing, because we genuinely believe we each merit our outcomes. However, let’s think about the things crushing us today, like student debt, because our grandparents tolerated it yesterday when it didn’t affect them.

Racial disparities do not exist because some races are inherently inferior or superior, but because of centuries of discrimination (both overt, covert, and inadvertent).

Many diversity programs take the approach of giving boxes to marginalized people to stand on (i.e. creating programs). This is fine in the short run, but a more effective and transformational approach is to involve these groups in the strategy development, so they help you see the barriers in your blind spots (i.e. creating equitable policies). We should aim for comprehensive IDEA management that shifts us from a model of saviorism to allyship, and from performing charity to practicing solidarity. That means giving up or sharing power and privilege and doing the hard work of listening and co-designing solutions with the marginalized groups.

As we make IDEA-related decisions, let us stop to think about who’s on the table, whose voices are actually being heard, who are those leading the strategy development; and remember the slogan, “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.”

Setche Kwamu-Nana is an inclusion, diversity, and equity (IDE) professional, building bridges that transform hearts, minds, systems, and behaviors. She has a degree in chemical engineering, an MBA with a concentration in human resource management, and is a Certified Diversity Professional by the National Diversity Council. She worked as an IDE leader at Caterpillar Inc. and Intuit Inc., and is also a facilitator at the National Conflict Resolution Center and Non-profit Management Solutions.

This article originally appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune.

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