We have diversity training, “Best of” rankings, legal requirements, and programs galore, but we do not appear to be making progress on the diversity, equity and inclusion front in our organizations. What is keeping us from breaking through the diversity barrier?
This past Sunday, the NY Times Magazine’s Education Issue included an article entitled What College Admissions Offices Really Want, which sheds some light on the complexities of this challenge. The article focuses on the lack of improvement in diversity numbers especially at the most select colleges. Part of the problem is a result of the perverse relationship between diversity goals and tuition funding requirements. Admission officers are tasks with balancing the tipping point between high caliber, socially disadvantaged students and their institutions’ need for tuition dollars to survive. The issue can be summed up in the following quotation from Jon Boeckenstedt, who spent 17 years in DePaul University enrollment department. “Admissions for us is not a matter of turning down students we’d like to admit. It’s a matter of admitting students we’d like to turn down.” Unfortunately, the current funding requirements of operating higher education institutions allow for only so much support of hard working but economically disadvantaged students. Hence, the diversity numbers have improved only incrementally. It becomes a resource issue.
Even in the Ivy League, where many endowments are sufficiently large to provide greater support to build a more diverse population, there are other factors that impact admissions decisions. The 2020 US News College Rankings were recently released. While those in academia may view the rankings with a level of distain, college bound students and parents view this ranking as a crucial tool in the college decision process. As pointed out in the article, if you rise in the ranking your institution’s application pool improves both in terms of numbers and quality. One of the key components of the ranking is the SAT score which has been shown to favor white males. Often, high SAT scores are used to offset lower grades in the admission process as a proxy for “college readiness.” Research done by Boeckenstedt demonstrates that highly selective institutions admit students with very high SAT scores and consequentially very low number of economically disadvantaged or minority students. If we give up our ranking mania, will this remove this self-fulfilling prophecy and improve diversity percentages. The bottom line is that improving diversity is complex, expensive, and fraught with unintended consequences.
While this story is a reflection of academia, I believe that it has relevance for corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. The fundamental issue remains are we moving the needle in terms of create and supporting a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce. While we have seen a rise in the number Diversity Equity & Inclusion roles along with mandatory training, and minority board representation requirements, the needle hasn’t really moved. According to Women on Boards 2020, women in 2018 represent 21% of Board members for Russell 1000 companies. While this is a slight increase from 2017, it is far below the demographic percentage of women in the US at 51%. Women continue to be significantly underrepresented on IPO boards. While this is just one statistic, it is representative of the baby rather than giant steps that have been made on the DEI journey.
Like in the NY Times article, there are a number of conflicting factors that impact driving improved diversity numbers. First is the issue of training programs. While many organizations provide mandatory training programs, they often lack strategic vision around diversity goals. As a result, the training is a one-off rather than a new model for doing business. In addition, there is a fundamental lack of understanding around bias. People have been programmed to believe that bias is “bad” and that if they are a “good” person they don’t have bias. The reality is that we all have unconscious bias. Understanding our unconscious bias is foundational to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion. Raising awareness and encouraging people to slow down their decision process to question their assumptions drives impact, but committing to these changes is an ongoing process that requires time and money.
What Works Gender Equality by Design by Iris Bohnet is a good resource for both identifying the barriers and for creating solutions. She recommends a tool known as perspective taking. By walking in your counterpart’s shoes, you begin to get an idea of what it is like to be them. To provide this perspective, I use an online interactive tool in my program that allows you to take the perspective of a young African American women as she experiences micro-aggressions at work and in social settings. In order to make progress, we need to really understand another’s perspective to change behaviors, systems and structures that support certain individuals but not others.
While the numbers demonstrate how challenging this work remains, we can and must change the status quo. Progress requires a significant change in mindset through out organizations. It requires a fundamental change in people, process, and policies. The journey is fraught with competing priorities and unintended consequences. In order to break down the diversity barriers, leadership needs to develop a DEI strategy that is part of leadership’s goals and is supported with time, talent, and resources.
Our next installment of this blog will focus on what is working in the DEI arena. If you would like to reinvigorate, your DEI program, please contact Kris at Kris@HRcomputes.com.