March 15, 2021

This Week in Diversity, Same as Last. It’s Time to Focus on Inclusion, not Difference.

Buried under a mountain of headlines on Monday, March 8—stories that apparently resonated with the soul of readers, which included a dating app’s IPO, disgraced film and music stars, royal family matters, the soaring stocks of exercise-related goods and services, the dissection of recent comic book movies, and the ongoing plight of securing the latest video game consoles—President Biden honored International Women’s Day by rolling back a bunch of orders issued by former President Trump, who had rolled back the policies of his predecessor President Obama. Crazy days, right? Yet at the heart of many of these stories pulsed the theme of diversity and inclusion. And sadly, it’s becoming a tale as old as time. What happened last week is what happened the week before that. And before that. And so on, like a bad shampoo commercial from the 1980s. So the burning question remains: why are we still fighting to make the case for diversity? And when do we stop talking about people’s differences to focus on including them?

Royal Families, Royalties, and Royal Pains

The news grinding out of the corporate media machines seemed in high gear early this week. We learned from beleaguered Sussexes Harry and Meghan that the royal family still captivates the attention of Americans. I wasn’t surprised. “I love watching Downton Abbey,” one of my closest friends regularly tells me. He’s Asian. “All those exotic white people,” he clarifies. He’s snarky, but I think he means it. We also learned, though who knows for sure where the truth lies, that the folks at Buckingham Palace didn’t want to treat Meghan for mental issues that involved suicidal contemplations when she appealed for help. Bad form, bad optics was the excuse. 

One story I found intriguing came from John Foley at Reuters. It bore the catchy title “White supremacy dies hard on the grocery shelf.” Foley’s reporting dug into the business case of DEI with some intriguing examples.

Last June, as America erupted in protest over racial injustice and police violence, two companies roughly 1,200 miles apart decided it was time to rethink brands with white supremacist roots. One was an iconic craft-beer maker in the Deep South. The other was a $60 billion consumer-goods conglomerate with a marketing budget in the billions of dollars and a string of awards for its commitment to diversity and ethical business. Guess which one changed first.

Yeah, the small company. Dixie Brewery is based in New Orleans and has been cooking up potent potables for a century. Its owner Gayle Benton realized that the associations with the name were mounting. “In June,” wrote Foley, “she decided a name associated with the pro-slavery Confederate troops of the American Civil War had to go. From March 26, Dixie becomes Faubourg Brewing, borrowing the old French word for a New Orleans suburb. The signs outside its main brewery were being taken down this week.”

What’s important to note here is the business case. I’ve had no interaction with Gayle Benton. I believe she is a savvy and sympathetic entrepreneur. There’s really no reason to presume otherwise. But for the sake of argument, let’s say she subscribed to the “heritage” justification for maintaining the presence of antebellum iconography or symbols. If that were true (which I doubt), she still put the needs of her customers and community first. That’s good business. That drives revenue. That makes the business case for diversity.

The reality for merchants is that discriminatory laws actually kill bottom-line profits. The whites in 1960 Greensboro discovered that sit-in protests hurt their businesses more than integration ever could have. Overall sales at the time fell by 20%. Profits dropped by 50%. Conversely, sales soared at desegregated companies located in cities such as Dallas and Atlanta. Ultimately, within a year of the first demonstrations, businesses across more than 100 Southern towns and cities agreed to integrate. 

For a modern perspective, consider a 2014 piece of legislation in Mississippi that allowed opponents of gay marriage to deny service to patrons based on religious objections. The merchants who posted signs welcoming LGBTQ customers enjoyed tremendous spikes in sales. The others enjoyed a tremendous spike in negative social media and unwanted attention from satirists. 

Back to Foley’s article. The other company in question was Colgate-Palmolive. 

Colgate faces a challenge Dixie doesn’t: supertankers turn slowly. Boss Noel Wallace oversees $16.5 billion of revenue. Dixie, even with its new 75,000-barrel-a-year brewery at full capacity, is relatively tiny. But size alone doesn’t explain the slow pace of change. Rival consumer goods giants PepsiCo and Mars have moved with surprising speed over similarly divisive marques. Pepsi’s Aunt Jemima pancake mix hits shelves in June with the new name Pearl Milling, and its titular image is already gone. Mars rice brand Uncle Ben’s is about to become Ben’s Original.

Colgate sells a brand of toothpaste in China called “Darlie.” It’s essentially one letter away from being a pejorative racial epithet in English. Probably not a coincidence. Regionally, Darlie translates to “Black person,” and the company was still filing protective trademarks like “Little Black Person” and “Black Person Super White” as recently as February. CEO Noel Wallace admitted that the brand causes tension and hurt feelings among workers of color in the organization. But it’s expensive to change and, as Foley remarked, “tankers turn slowly.” Colgate further admitted that market share for the product remains strong in China, a country unperturbed by the racial reckoning taking place elsewhere in the world, so the DEI business case gets a bit muddier.

“Colgate’s adherence to Darlie, for a company whose core values are ‘caring, global teamwork and continuous improvement,’ is far less ambiguous.”

Unfortunately, the Darlie dilemma exemplifies how easily people can rationalize and normalize any problem, from ache to atrocity. I’ll explain.

Another item in the news this week arrived courtesy of Margaret Renkl in the New York Times. Her editorial “Of Nazis, Crimes and Punishment” concerns the identification and apprehension of a former Nazi: “Two weeks ago, the U.S. government deported Friedrich Karl Berger, a longtime resident of Oak Ridge, Tenn., for participating in Nazi war crimes. Mr. Berger was returned to Germany, where authorities have declined to press charges of their own. He had lived in the United States since 1959.”

At 95, Mr. Berger has had ample time — and achieved ample maturity — to examine his own conscience and repent of his own actions, but he appears to believe he did nothing wrong. Or perhaps he only believes that actions in the distant past no longer warrant repercussion: “After 75 years, this is ridiculous. I cannot believe it,” he told The Washington Post last year. “I cannot understand how this can happen in a country like this. You’re forcing me out of my home.”

With the passage of time, authorities ostensibly shared Berger’s opinion that prosecuting his crimes would be “ridiculous.” I have a difficult time believing that my grandparents, camp survivors both, would have seen the absurdity in following through. “Some offenses are so hideous that even the distance of history offers no shield. But that doesn’t make justice easy,” Renkl wrote.

Yet we in America have already normalized years of racial divisiveness, stilted equal rights efforts, the reversal of civil protections, and outright insurrection. On March 8, President Biden took yet another step to correct that. To a certain extent, his actions amounted to putting Obama-era policies back in place. Biden’s executive order launched the establishment of the White House Gender Policy Council, which restored core elements of Obama’s White House Council on Women and Girls, disbanded by Trump early in his tenure. Like its forebear, this new council focuses on overcoming the obstacles facing women and redressing the detrimental erosion of some Title IX protections under the previous administration, but it also more broadly seeks to address protections for all gender identities moving forward.

“This is an important step,” said Shiwali Patel, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “The Title IX rules changes that took place under the Trump administration are incredibly harmful, and they’re still in effect.”

Biden’s order also challenges the policies enforced by Trump and then Education Secretary DeVos who altered the way colleges responded to sexual harassment and assault. Many of their provisions bolstered the rights of the accused and narrowed “the scope of cases schools are required to address. It was seen as a swing away from Obama-era guidance that focused on protecting victims of sexual misconduct.” 

And while these developments were unfolding, hundreds of women in Mexico marched on the government to protest the longstanding and normalized violence against women in that country. They were met with violence that included flash-bang grenades lobbed into the crowd by police.

Yes, There’s a Difference Between DEI Strategies and Their Justification

If we want to make a difference as business leaders, we should. Waiting for legislative changes or political dog whistles won’t solve the problem. And despite gains, people involved in hiring and recruiting still find themselves called upon to “make the business case” for DEI. Economists have made it to an exhaustive extent. Business analysts have made it. The staffing industry, itself born from diversity, has made it for decades. There’s a vast difference between trying to understand inclusion methodologies and seeking justification for the practice. 

As Workforce Magazine’s Kellye Whitney pointed out in her impassioned editorial:

“But to question the actual value of diversity—which is what the business case is—that’s unacceptable… To make such a query smacks of heads in the sand, and a willful, almost criminal dismissal or ignorance of changing realities in the marketplace. That question should be a historical footnote at this point in the game. It should be a part of the foundation you started building some time ago.”

Attempting to understand inclusion processes makes a lot of sense for clients. That also means they recognize the value of diversity. As Whitney noted, these organizational leaders comprehend the dynamics of business flux—that to compete and grow, one must promote an employment culture that encourages innovation. And innovation springs from fresh perspectives and cultural insights, which lead to service enhancements, unique product offerings, and effective ways to reach new markets or engage new consumers.

Demanding validation for diversity is not the same. “They’re asking, why is this important? Why does this deserve my time and attention? Why should I care to take action?” Whitney wrote. “It would be like me asking our copy editor why do we have to deal with changes in AP Style? Language, like the marketplace, like the workforce, evolves. You either move along with the changes happening around you, or they move along without you.”

But if we have to make the case again, let’s do it.

  • According to McKinsey Global Institute’s pivotal 2016 report on gender parity, “Every state and city in the United States has the opportunity to further gender parity, which could add $4.3 trillion to the country’s economy in 2025.”
  • In the world of venture capital, the Harvard Business Review disclosed, “the success rate of acquisitions and IPOs was 11.5% lower, on average, for investments by partners with shared school backgrounds than for those by partners from different schools. The effect of shared ethnicity was even stronger, reducing an investment’s comparative success rate by 26.4% to 32.2%.” 
  • For VC firms that increased their proportion of female partners by 10%, they witnessed, on average, “a 1.5% spike in overall fund returns each year and had 9.7% more profitable exits (an impressive figure given that only 28.8% of all VC investments have a profitable exit).”
  • From MarketWatch’s Jack Myers: “Diverse companies are 2.3 times higher than those of companies with more monolithic staff. Diverse companies are 70% more likely to capture new markets than organizations that do not actively recruit and support talent from under-represented groups.”
  • And back to another McKinsey report called “Why Diversity Matters,” organizations with gender-diverse executive suites were 15% more likely to generate above-average profitability.
  • “When it comes to staffing,” McKinsey explained, “companies that have higher degrees of racially and ethnically diverse employees have a 35% performance advantage over companies relying on a ‘culture fit’ that tends to trend white and monocultural.”

We can spit out statistics like these all week long. But why? The case for diversity is made. Even for companies that dispute this, and I’ve seen articles with headlines like “Diversity Doesn’t Really Drive Profits,” why bother? Who wants to transact business with a company actively attempting to downplay the need for inclusion?

Millennials make the majority of today’s workforce. Moreover, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, they will make 75% of the U.S. workforce by 2030. A job is no longer just about a paycheck for millennials; it’s very much about purpose, with 75% saying they want their personal values to align with their company’s values. Many are willing to take pay cuts to work for a values-aligned employer. As consumers, their ideologies remain the same. So which company is going to see an uptick in business from the largest forthcoming customer base? The New Orleans brewery or Colgate? The answer should be obvious.

DEI Is Not a Metric, It’s a Mindset

Diversity, as a workforce concern, seems to be in danger of becoming a data point—or even a euphemism. We must do better. That’s the long and short of it. And the solution may be simpler and more direct than we’ve imagined. Instead of measuring diversity, reporting on it, and setting quantifiable targets to achieve some statistical threshold of acceptability, we need to speak up. Attaining a truly inclusive workforce begins with talking about diversity, championing differences, concentrating the experiences of different workers, and defending equality—vocally and visibly. If history has taught us anything, it’s that troubles flourish when people keep quiet.

In some ways, in some business environments, in some corporate cultures, that’s where this tale ends. “Let’s make more movies about female superheroes,” film studios will declare to their shareholders. “Let’s ask our Black employees in IT to head up a diversity program because, you know, they’re Black,” big tech enterprises will say in the boardroom. They have a number. They have a target. That doesn’t portend, however, that these organizations will bring the same inclusiveness to their workforces. It doesn’t mean they’ll hire more women writers, directors, producers, staffers, engineers, editors, and so forth. Or if they do, it doesn’t mean they’ll hire more gender-diverse people, differently abled candidates, or talent from other ethnicities or cultures. They’re just meeting a nebulous quota set to address some existential crisis of the moment.

Assigning numeric goals to diversity will not solve the crisis. The bigger challenge is actually thinking in terms of inclusion rather than figures and buzzwords. As Noah Berlatsky noted in the Los Angeles Times, “diversity” is devolving into a convenient, euphemistic term. While it may instill a positive and upbeat mood, it no longer captures the essence of inclusion.

“When critics from marginalized groups ask for more diversity,” Berlatsky wrote, “they are actually asking the media, employers, schools and society in general not to discriminate against them….  A request for more diversity isn’t really a plea to embrace stimulating heterogeneity. It’s a plea to embrace minimal decency.”

Less Diversity Talk, More Inclusion Action

Here’s the thing we don’t mention enough. Before any workplace diversity initiatives commence, the first step should really be a long look in the mirror. Business leaders must ask, “Who are we, who do we want to be, and will we stick up for everyone?” Here are some simple ways to proceed from there. Clearly, there are many more, but you gotta start somewhere.

  • Create a representative team of diversity champions, across all employment levels of the enterprise, to advise on fair and inclusive processes for retention, recognition, skills coaching, effective management techniques, bias prevention education, performance and compensation reviews, and more.
  • Engage every employee in diversity efforts. Instead of talking to them, talk with them. Never assume. Get their input and develop strategies based on those findings.
  • Develop mentorship programs where learned experiences can be shared and supported. Don’t tokenize. Behaviors like, “Beatrice is Asian American, let’s make her head of the Asian Diversity Team” aren’t going to accomplish anything other than more hurt feelings and the perception of tone-deaf leadership.
  • Make corporate leaders accountable for creating inclusion advocates across all classes, reinforcing diversity commitments, measuring progress, identifying challenges, and sticking up for every team member equally.
  • Don’t allow diversity to become an independent agenda or subset of the workforce, relegated to groups or roles. Infuse diversity throughout the enterprise, in thought and deed. Foster a culture that ends the association of labels or subconscious identifiers or preconceived characteristics with age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. You’re working with people—people who are 99.9% identical in their genetic markup.
  • Yes, there may still be a lot of apparent homogeneity in the C-suite, but its leaders can still help drive meaninging DEI goals through allyship: actively promoting and aspiring to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive, and conscious efforts that benefit people as a whole.

The British New Wave band Depeche Mode had a song called “New Dress.” Lyrically, it was just a list of tragic current events and global problems punctuated by the chorus, “Princess Di is wearing a new dress.” It was no slight to Princess Diana. It was a condemnation of the popular press, which also excoriated the attitudes of readers who encouraged that sensationalism. I feel as though that’s where we are with the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) conversations. Things are troubling, progress has faltered, four years of discriminatory political rhetoric and a pandemic have complicated an already complex situation. But hey, so-and-so is wearing a new dress. Stop the presses. 

We should no longer have to make any case for diversity. We can’t just keep talking about it and then getting distracted by the new dresses. We can’t keep normalizing failures and setbacks as “stuff that happened, what can we do about it?” We have to actually do something. Or, like the Colgates of the world, just stop apologizing, making excuses, or caring if we’re not sincere.

We’ll seldom reach genuine inclusion by just measuring data against the organization’s demographic norm, whatever that happens to be, or asking if our suppliers are registered by some diversity council. Just because a firm is a diverse enterprise shouldn’t inherently imply that its workforce is. In fact, maybe it’s time to abandon the idea of that demographic norm altogether. We achieve inclusion and equity by building inclusive and equitable cultures, where the only norm is a shared value for success and the success of one another.

Photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash

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