Although Corporate America has spent years implementing diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs, black and Latino women still remain underrepresented at mid- and senior-level positions. According to recent data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, black women are 7.6 percent of the private sector workforce, but only 1.5 percent of executives. Latino women comprise 6.2 percent of the private sector workforce, yet only 1.3 percent of executives.
The majority of large corporations in the United States have instituted D&I programs. Such programs are meant to attract, retain, and promote diverse talent. However, many of these programs are executed “imperfectly” when it comes to women of color. Catalyst data show that women of color in law firms, for example, are significantly less likely than white women to believe that their organization’s D&I programs are successful at overcoming subtle gender and racial bias.
Why is that? Clearly, organizations have not been successful at creating inclusive workplaces in which those of different backgrounds have an opportunity to thrive. Recent research has shown that decision makers often fall back on biased preferences rather than “following the script” of objective decision making. One study, based on observations of a hiring committee, found that even when hiring criteria were clearly laid out, committee members overlooked objective criteria linked to potential productivity of candidates, in favor of selecting candidates who were similar to themselves in self-presentation styles.
One promising avenue for improvement of diversity and talent management practices is to limit the opportunities for biases to affect decisions. For example, structured interviews, such as a set of objective questions related to specific job duties, tend to be more accurate in predicting employee performance than informal, “unstructured” interviews. Informal interviews are more likely to allow bias to enter the picture. This might include the chitchat between an interviewer and a job candidate before an interview begins. Subtle behaviors at this point—those that let the interviewer know that he or she is similar to the candidate—can raise the chances for a job offer.
Similarly, practices or programs that are only loosely managed are less likely to be successful in achieving their end goal, versus those with consistent oversight. In an assessment that I conducted of the effectiveness of mentoring programs for women (including both white women and women of color), some mentoring programs were closely managed in the pilot or early phases, providing support and guidance to the pairs. However, as the programs expanded, they lost both some oversight by those responsible for the practice or program and a measure of participant satisfaction.
If business leaders are willing to apply the same level of oversight to D&I and talent management practices as they do to the revenue-generating areas of their businesses, they will succeed in generating greater returns on their talent investments. Until then, they are missing out on the diverse perspectives and insights that women of color bring to the business world.
For more information, see Women of Color in U.S. Law Firms—Women of Color in Professional Services Series | Catalyst.
Katherine Giscombe, PhD, is Catalyst’s Vice President and Women of Color Practitioner, Global Member Services.