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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

In conversation with Pamela Newkirk

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Pamela Newkirk, Sonia Kang

How would you describe the billion-dollar diversity business?

In writing the book (Diversity Inc.), I wanted to explore the tension between the constant rhetoric about diversity and the billions of dollars that are spent annually on consultants and anti-bias training — and the fact that most of these organizations barely move the needle when it comes to hiring people of colour. Whether it’s creative fields like fashion and Hollywood, academia, law or business, people of colour remain radically under-represented in every influential field. They make up close to 40 per cent of the U.S. population, but they are in the single digits in most influential fields.

Why are some of the fields that should be the most progressive not making any headway?

That was actually one of the surprises of my research. The creative and cultural fields — museums, Hollywood, fashion — that position themselves as being the most socially progressive are among the least diverse. Corporate America has made far greater strides than any of these fields. It still has problems, particularly in the upper echelons of leadership, but it is far more diverse. That’s because, first of all, there are many more jobs to fill, so there is greater competition, and they really want to get the best of the best. And secondly, they often have structures in place like anti-nepotism clauses, which force them to reach outside of their tiny sphere of influence. Because we live in such a rigorously segregated society, people are still generally hiring who they know and who their friends know — and these spheres of influence often exclude people of colour.

Until recently, lots of people in the U.S. insisted that race was no longer a concern. In fact, many argued that we lived in a post-race society. If there is one silver lining from the unrest that erupted after the tragic killing of George Floyd, it is that fewer people now deny just how deeply embedded these issues are in our country. Their blinders were ripped off, and finally, we’re all on the same page.

We cannot normalize the exclusion of 40 per cent of the population from so many fields.

How can we have these conversations in a meaningful way at work?

If there is one key takeaway from my book, it is that corporate leaders have to move beyond the focus on changing hearts and minds that most anti-bias training is set up to do — and has been proven not to do. Study after study shows that this type of training does not move the needle. Ironically, anti-bias training has been shown to polarize the workplace and make it even more resistant to diversity.

We need to move past those attempts to real interventions. The only real answer to the discomfort with diversity is diversity. The fact is, due to the racially segregated nature of society, people don’t have a comfort level with people outside of their own social sphere. Only by having greater exposure to different types of people will we gain that comfort level, and that’s why diversity itself is the answer. And it’s well worth doing: All of the studies show that diversity improves innovation and can improve your bottom line. It’s  also the right thing to do. We live in a diverse society and we cannot normalize the exclusion of 40 per cent of the population from all of these fields. There is no justification for that.

Are there companies that are doing this right?

I’ve studied Coca-Cola and what it did in the five-year period after it settled a landmark discrimination lawsuit. What it took to move the needle on racial diversity there was three things: leadership, intention and accountability. They began by assessing every data point around every single employee, from salaries to bonuses, to promotions to hiring. They also looked at every title and every action concerning each employee across racial and gender lines. By assessing where certain types of people were clustered and where people were under-represented, they were able to get a very clear picture of where bias had metastasized inside the company.

Once they had a clear picture, they turned their attention to disrupting these patterns of bias before they could metastasize. So before they offered someone a job, they would make sure that the candidate pool was sufficiently diverse. They would look at the salary offered, to ensure it was in line with other people working in that type or role. Over the course of five years of rigorous analysis and intervention, they were able to create a far more diverse workplace.

What key lessons can be learned from Coca-Cola?

I think too many institutions are proceeding as if diversity is going to just going to happen organically — when in fact, it only happens if you really pay attention to your practices. We all know that unconscious bias exists within each of us. We can train people for the next 40 years, but it will still exist. If you look instead at how it manifests, and then disrupt the patterns and practices before they metastasize, you can actually do something about it.

I also write about Google, which has spent more than $100 million per year on diversity initiatives year after year — yet people of colour, particularly Blacks and Hispanics, remain in the single digits. When you look at tech roles in general, it’s like three or four per cent people of colour, and the only way to change this is with very intentional practices and interventions. Another overlooked strategy is something every company can do: mentoring. Because of the discomfort many people feel around race, people of colour are often left to figure things out on their own. You need to put structures in place so that every employee who wants it — no matter what their race or gender — can be mentored.

People often talk about these problems as being a pipeline issue, but I believe many organizations just don’t know how to recruit. Would you agree?

That’s a big part of it. The question is, can we incentivize increasing diversity? Can we use bonuses? Could we incentivize it in the same way we incentivize improving our bottom line or innovation efforts? I’m hoping that the events of the past year will prompt senior leaders to do something differently.

They are under greater scrutiny than ever as people become sensitized to the drive-by diversity strategies that continue to fail.

Last summer, we saw numerous Fortune 500 CEOs issue statements that Black Lives Matter — something that was unthinkable when I sat down to write Diversity Inc. But these are still just words; the proof will be in the pudding. One thing that encourages me is that young people seem to be much more selective these days about the organizations they choose to align themselves with. So if you want the best and brightest working for you, this is something you must take action on.

Ironically, anti-bias training has been shown to polarize some workplaces.

After George Floyd’s murder, there was a lot of talk last summer about defunding the police. If you could defund diversity, where would you re-allocate the funds?

I would put the funding towards actually diversifying the workplace. Imagine if a company like Google — or another tech company with billions of dollars — invested in the actual pipeline itself by putting money into under-resourced urban schools that are hungering for the technology and programs that kids in better-resourced communities take for granted? We know that 25 per cent of Bachelor’s degrees are awarded to Black and Latino students for Engineering, Computer Science and other STEM subjects; imagine if big tech companies invested in those particular kids and their future success? I think that would make a world of difference, rather than using the money to try to change the hearts and minds of people who already work at Google. I just don’t see how that will ever result in a more diverse workplace.

Last year, Russell Reynolds did a survey of Fortune 500 chief diversity officers, and it found that only 35 per cent of these executives had access to employee metrics for their companies. They can’t yet do the kind of assessment and intervention that happened at Coca-Cola, because they can’t even see where the problems are. If you can’t see it, how can you fix it? Many of the CDOs in that survey said they did not have the support or resources that they needed to be successful. The people in these roles are among the most marginalized on the executive team. Unless you have leadership that is actually invested in your success, this is not going to work. This has to be an all-hands-on-deck project.

For leaders across industries, social pressure to do the right thing is increasing. Is that part of the answer?

Any optimism I had last summer with the outpouring from corporate leaders was tempered by the manner in which many of them pledged millions of dollars to civil rights organizations — as if the problem could be fixed outside of their workplaces and it wasn’t right in front of them. Civil rights organizations only respond to bias after it manifests. These problems exist within these institutions. This is a problem crying out for leadership.

Can managers who are early in their careers be part of the solution?

There is always something you can do, but you can only be so successful without senior leadership behind you. Strategies middle managers can embrace include mentoring the people who are already in their space and keeping lists of the candidates who apply for jobs in their area. But at the end of the day, if this is not considered a core value and part of your organizations mission, you will just spin your wheels, because it won’t rise to a level of change that only leadership can bring to fruition.

Pamela NewkirkPamela Newkirk is a professor of journalism at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. Her latest book is Diversity Inc.: The Fight for Racial Equality in the Workplace (Bold Type Books, 2020).

Sonia KangSonia Kang is the Canada research chair in identity, diversity and inclusion, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the Rotman School of Management and chief scientist at Behavioural Economics in Action at Rotman (BEAR).