Why Diversity Matters

Amid growing backlash, four leaders make a convincing case for diversity

By Ruchika Tulshyan

Viacom, the billion-dollar media conglomerate, relies on diversity and inclusion as a strategic business priority. The organization leverages its diverse talent pool to create programming that reflects the audiences it serves around the globe.

“We are focused on ensuring that the people behind and in front of the camera resonate with diverse audiences and deliver culturally relevant stories and experiences,” says Daisy Auger-Dominguez, senior vice president of talent acquisition at Viacom. With a portfolio of brands that serve diverse communities, including MTV, BET, and Nickelodeon, “this is a priority for us,” she says.

Many companies make diversity and inclusion a priority, but there’s a growing public backlash against diversity.

The issue hit the front pages when, in the summer of 2017, Google software engineer James Damore published a 10-page memo addressed to his colleagues arguing that women are less biologically suited to careers in technology, concluding with a call to “de-moralize diversity.” The company fired him, but the idea that the diversity movement had gone too far became hotly contested in the media and across workplaces.

Damore’s argument is hardly new. Celebrated men throughout history, from Charles Darwin to former Harvard University President Larry Summers, have pointed to women’s inferiority to explain the lack of women advancing in the sciences. But the recent incident at Google refreshed the argument, with public figures like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Eric Weinstein, managing director of Thiel Capital, rushing to defend Damore’s views. It was later found that several fellow Google employees also agreed with his arguments.

Other critics of diversity programs argue that they are an extension of federally mandated affirmative action programs, and that often standards are lowered to create access and equity for underrepresented groups.

Michele C. Meyer-Shipp, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, strongly disagrees. “Diversity management is not a federal mandate but rather a commitment by an organization to ensure that their workplaces are reflective of the diverse communities they work in and/or customers they serve,” she emphasizes.

“I would flat out say to people who make that assertion, ‘that’s not an accurate statement,’” says Janice Little, global chief diversity officer for Lowe’s Companies. “Then we’re saying that people in underserved groups are subpar. And I would challenge anyone to prove that.”

Not only are D&I initiatives not detrimental to a company’s level of talent, say its proponents, but there’s strong evidence to highlight that diversity creates business potential for organizations and enhances the bottom line.

McKinsey & Company’s analysis of 366 global public companies found that companies with greater ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to outperform their industry peers financially. And companies with more gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their peers. “Diversity matters because it’s an opportunity to be innovative, to leverage gifts and talents of all of our people, and utilize those vast experiences to create better outcomes for customers we serve,” Janice Little says.

Anise Wiley-Little has personally seen how diversity can impact a company’s bottom line. The chief human capital and diversity officer for the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has dedicated more than 25 years of her career to making these shifts happen for companies, most recently with Allstate Insurance.

Wiley-Little recalls that while discussing sales goals with a senior leader at a previous company, “it became very clear that diversity mattered at an organizational level, as we had the opportunity to tap into the multicultural marketplace in a way we hadn’t before,” she says, which of course impacts the bottom line. In order to do that, company salespeople and leaders had to be equipped with understanding how to approach underserved communities. “In minority communities, it’s only when you are viewed as being part of that community—participating in their events, for example—that people there value you more, and then they want to do business with you. That’s the type of education we had to reinforce with our leaders and salespeople to understand the opportunity.”

Her approach became a valuable part of the company’s strategy, clearly highlighting the business value of diversity.

Talent management

Demographers estimate that by 2044 more than half the US population will be non-Caucasian. This is a global trend, as more and more countries, particularly in the West, are becoming less racially homogenous. Further, the workforce is becoming more age diversified, as four generations (baby boom and gen X,Y, and Z) work side by side, with millennials comprising the largest share. The ripple effects of this diverse population are being felt throughout workplaces.

This demographic diversification impacts companies. These impacts include, for example, workplaces needing to include employees from a variety of cultures, such as the growing number of Muslim employees—the fastest-growing religious group in the United States—and the reality that a larger majority of women aspire to leadership positions than before.

Recognizing this changing workforce, emphasizing diversity, and committing to inclusion are necessary to attract and retain talent. Companies that don’t take these factors into account are in danger of losing top talent to competitors.

Diversity matters because “work environments that are diverse and inclusive foster feelings of belonging, engagement, and security, which, in turn, drive employee satisfaction and retention, and drive innovation,” says Meyer-Shipp.

Janice Little, the CDO of Lowe’s, agrees. “A diversity strategy creates a value to customers, and aligns with creating a highly engaged workforce,” she says. “Strong D&I practitioners today know how to connect all those dots—and this takes innovation.”

The design of a parental leave policy is one example of how a company’s strategy can engage—or alienate—employees. “When companies market maternity leave just to women, we miss the millennial father who may be just as interested in time off to bond,” Little says. “We also forget to include members of the LGBT community who may be adopting, or surrogates.”

Traditional approaches to diversity must evolve with the times. In some early assessments, Little found that male employees were more vocal advocates for parental leave than women. “We must be willing and able to change our perspectives constantly,” Little says.

Better products and customer service

Another reason greater diversity in Corporate America’s workforce is critical, say its supporters, is that our communities are becoming more diverse, and therefore employees need to reflect the market they are trying to reach. Organizations risk losing customers by not prioritizing diversity.

In 2015, the artificial intelligence technology that powered Google Photos identified images of a black man and woman as gorillas. The sophisticated facial recognition software was an exciting breakthrough for the company, but the error brought it attention for all the wrong reasons. The company apologized profusely, but the damage had been done.

Nancy Lee, Google’s head of diversity initiatives at the time, told the Associated Press that the incident was a “wake-up call” for the company. “We need to include all voices from a multitude of backgrounds and experiences [when it comes to the] technology we create. We firmly believe that good ideas don’t come out of echo chambers,” she said in the interview. But even in 2017, only 1 percent of Google’s technology teams comprise black employees.

As companies reach new heights to innovate, failing to approach business through the lens of diversity can also hinder reaching target customers.

Lowe’s Janice Little recalls an example at a previous company where products for children going to college were being marketed to fathers, rather than mothers. “We were advertising to men, although women were making the purchasing decisions,” she says. “We quickly began spending our time learning how we could do consumer marketing with a D&I lens.”

Kellogg’s Wiley-Little admits to hesitating when she was first charged with leading diversity in a previous role, a shift from her background in compensation and economic benefits. “I remember asking the company’s CEO, ‘Why am I leading this?’” she says. Her CEO promptly responded that she was great at building strategy, and that’s what this work requires.

“Something happens to the heart over time when you see your strategy changing lives,” she says, “when you see executives from different backgrounds excel, when the organization begins embracing staff in different ways, and when you see a boardroom that initially had only one woman now has three or four. Had you not pushed for the right practices and changes in the environment, that person wouldn’t be there.”

It’s time to take a stand for D&I

All the leaders interviewed highlight an urgent need to address issues of diversity and inclusion. As employers contend with an increasingly divided political climate and new challenges such as the emerging #metoo movement around sexual harassment, D&I leaders must be prepared to help employers navigate workplace tensions relating to race, religion, and gender, says Meyer-Shipp. “D&I leaders will need to spend more time facilitating conversations across differences, raising awareness about unconscious bias, and equipping leaders with the skill sets they need to be more intentionally and consciously inclusive of others at a time when people are hesitant and sometime afraid to confront issues of difference.”

Wiley-Little agrees. Ten years ago, diversity was a “purely business practice that organizations prioritized for sustainability.” But with so much trauma being felt in communities and “with employees walking into workplaces with baggage, organizations must be prepared and open to share perspectives,” she says. “It can be dicey for organizations to touch on issues like social justice, but now we see CEOs stepping up to the plate.”

It’s become incumbent upon business leaders to lead by example and evolve beyond their traditional training and education—when employees were expected not to bring their full identities to work—and now learn how to fully engage a diverse workforce.

However, many employees are feeling under siege right now. Many communities are experiencing unprecedented turmoil—undocumented immigrants (and their documented children), Muslim Americans, and African Americans are all feeling threatened on a number of fronts.

African Americans, who make up 12 percent of the American workforce, can especially use the support that robust diversity and inclusion programs provide. For example, African Americans were financially worse off in 2016 than in 2000, the only racial group in this position. Among other indicators, the wage gap between college-educated white and black Americans has widened significantly since 1979, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. And African Americans, who have the lowest rates of health insurance, will be disproportionately impacted by a new tax law that cuts insurance.
“We see that black employees are living in emotional and painful times,” says Viacom’s Auger-Dominguez. “The pain impacts their productivity, morale, and ability to deliver. More companies are acknowledging this and creating the space for challenging dialogues in a way we have never seen before.”

Indeed, diversity matters today more than ever. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“Diversity is hard work. Sometimes you’ll fly close to the sun and get a beautiful tan, and sometimes you’ll get burned.” These words remain etched in Janice Little’s mind, decades after her late mentor, Thurmond Woodard, first said them to her. “We all need to show a little vulnerability,” she says. “You’re going to get scuffed and not going to get it right all the time. But it’s about getting into the arena and being willing to play.” DW

Ruchika Tulshyan is author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace (Forbes). She is also founder of Candour, an inclusion communications and strategy firm.

Daisy Auger-Dominguez, Senior Vice President of Talent Acquisition, Viacom

Anise Wiley-Little, Chief Human Capital and Diversity Officer, Kellogg School of Management

Michele C. Meyer-Shipp, Esq., Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP

Janice Little, Global Chief Diversity Officer, Lowe’s Companies

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