Managing Diversity & Inclusion in the Workplace

Sep 21 2020 | Insights
Two black women hugging and smiling.

There are few jobs more stressful right now than senior executive in charge of Diversity and Inclusion.

Following this summer’s seismic protests against systemic racism and a law enforcement culture that seems to encourage violence against people of colour, the business world is rushing to address its often spotty record of D&I.

Most research on gender and racial equality in labour markets shows only modest success. It seems that as one under-represented group makes gains, others seem to fall even further behind.

For example, there are still only 39 women CEOs among Fortune 500 companies. Remarkably, that is an all-time high. So, while there has been progress, it’s quite clear that so much more needs to be done.

More than ever before, customers, employees and investors are looking for real progress in racial and gender equity and looking to senior D&I leaders to plot the way forward. In many ways, that is easier said than done.

Real progress in D&I is elusive

Consider the story of Candice Morgan, the first-ever head of D&I at Pinterest. When she was hired in 2016, Morgan was lauded as a role model for a new generation of progressive leaders. A lot of the attention was due to the fact she had accepted a role at a high-profile company in a high-profile industry that had been assailed for its toxic culture and lack of diversity.

Under her leadership, Pinterest became one of the first Silicon Valley employers to regularly release D&I data and set hiring goals. Within a year of her hiring, Morgan was included on just about every list of the world’s most influential D&I executives.

For four years, Morgan served admirably as the face of Pinterest’s high-profile campaign to become diverse and inclusive. And in its annual D&A reports, there was progress hiring more engineers who were female or from underrepresented racialized groups.

But then suddenly, the story began to unravel. Pinterest began to lower its hiring targets and industry analysts began to note that while there was improvement in some categories, overall Pinterest was not becoming more diverse.

In January 2020, Morgan quietly left Pinterest with little or no explanation to take a senior role at Google Ventures. Her departure would turn out to be the beginning of a series of setbacks.

In June, two Black female Pinterest public policy officers posted a series of allegations on Twitter that they were paid less than male colleagues, and faced racist and sexist behaviour from managers. In August, Francoise Brougher, former chief operating officer and the number two executive at Pinterest, filed a lawsuit claiming she was fired after complaining about sexist treatment.

Just a few months after Morgan’s departure, Pinterest was literally back to square one in its efforts to create a genuinely diverse and inclusive culture.

How leaders at all levels can make or break D&I progress

Morgan’s story is instructive in two ways. First, it shows the incredible scrutiny and pressure that D&I leaders face in their jobs. The mass global protests against systemic racism and police brutality have only heightened expectations.

And second, it reveals the importance that leaders play in creating real and lasting change.

David Pedulla, a professor of sociology at Harvard University who studies race and gender structures in labour markets, believes that any meaningful improvement in D&I within an organization has to start with changing leader behaviours and mindsets.

In a May 2020 article in the Harvard Business Review, Pedulla describes five D&I strategies that have been proven over time to produce legitimate results. They include increasing efforts around data collection and analysis, developing new complaint systems that offer meaningful protection to complainants, tests for biased technology that may exacerbate inequalities and – last but not least – involving managers at all levels in the design of D&I initiatives.

“Often, organizations have experts design programs that are then deployed to the managers,” Pedulla wrote. “This strategy often lacks a reality check: Does this program fit into the way managers already work, or are managers now required to add something into their already complex days? Involving managers in the design process can increase buy-in and smooth implementation, making interventions more sustainable and long-lasting.”

Real progress in D&I requires consistent attention to all areas of an organization’s operations and culture, from hiring to leadership behaviours. To actually move the needle on D&I, leaders need to be fully involved, not only in delivering results but also in designing the solutions.

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