Diversity and inclusion efforts in corporate America will go nowhere until companies stop addressing the issue as a numbers game, and begin doing something about the unconscious bias that permeates organizational culture.
That was my takeaway from a recent interview with Linda Sharkey, an organizational and leadership development strategist and co-author of “The Future-Proof Workplace: Six Strategies to Accelerate Talent Development, Reshape Your Culture, and Succeed with Purpose.” Sharkey, who has held executive-level human resources positions at General Electric and Hewlett-Packard, shared an enlightening — and certainly non-traditional — perspective on the topic of corporate diversity and inclusion. I asked Sharkey about the biggest workplace diversity myth. She gave me three:
One is that quotas make a difference. Two is that just by focusing on diversity, it’s going to move the needle. Three is that women have really moved to the top of organizations, when they haven’t. Policies, practices and procedures that companies put in place to become a more diverse organization have not done the trick. We’ve spent 40 years trying to put in policies that would encourage diversity, and encourage managers to hire diverse people, and it really hasn’t moved the needle.
I asked Sharkey at what point in her career she began to recognize that the way we were going about this was all wrong. She said it was a good 20-some years ago:
Part of the work that I did at General Electric and other companies was to begin to look at the cultural aspects of an organization — who was the “in crowd,” who was the “out crowd,” because every organization has an in crowd and an out crowd. I was doing some data analysis on who’s hiring whom, and you find out a couple of really interesting things. If you have a culture that’s not by nature inclusive, you’re not going to create an environment that’s going to include others than those that look like and act like you. The second thing is, in studying the hiring practices of managers, you begin to realize that no matter how hard they try, they’re people at the end of the day, and they hire people that they’re comfortable with. When you narrow that down, that means they hire people that look and think like they do. Does that mean that they’re bad people? No. That’s the makeup, or the DNA, or the context of most people.
I did a major study of two big organizations, HP and GE, and found that while you could have processes that demand that you have diverse talent on slates, unless the belief of that manager or leader really accepted different people, it didn’t make a difference at all. Everyone came up with their own excuse of why they couldn’t hire this woman, or this minority, or this particular individual, why they weren’t as qualified. And they hired people who were just like them. So yes, if the metric was to get people on the slate, they did that. But they wouldn’t hire them.
Sharkey said that what lies at the heart of the difficulty in achieving inclusion in the workplace is that we all have unconscious biases that need to be “unlearned.” I asked her how we go about accomplishing that:
The first step is you have to understand your organizational culture. Do you have a culture that values differences? If you don’t, then that’s an area you need to focus on. You need to understand why you don’t value differences — you need to be clear about the values of your organization. Many companies say they believe it’s in their best interest to have an inclusive organizational culture, and they will say things like, “No matter who you are, where you are, you can have a career here, you can get ahead here.” But then you have to look at the facts — what do the facts tell you? If the facts tell you that that’s really not true, you’ve got to get to the underlying root cause.
Sharkey went on to explain that the company needs to provide the means and the opportunity to uncover unconscious bias:
There are exercises that you can do, but you’ve got to put it explicitly on the table. There were a couple of studies done that found that job descriptions have a natural, unconscious bias around what are considered “female traits.” An example would be a nurse’s position — you read those job descriptions, and you’ll see there are a lot of inherent “female” perspectives listed in those job descriptions. You look at “executive presence,” more women, in my experience, got dinged for executive presence, because we have a white, male perspective of what executive presence looks like, instead of getting people from diverse backgrounds in the room and talking about what it looks like. I think that’s the key — getting people together and talking about why they made the decision they made. By the way, I never found most men to be overtly mysoginistic. It wasn’t that they were anti-women — it’s that their brains were wired in certain ways that we all learned thousands and thousands of years ago. Unlearning that can be done, but it’s got to be put on the table — what it is that you’re looking for in an individual.
It’s also useful, Sharkey said, to conduct “blind resume” exercises:
This is where you can’t tell [what gender] the candidate really is, and doing screening based upon skillsets, as opposed to unconsciously looking for clues in the resume as to whether the person is diverse or different. I’ll tell you this: There have been so many experiences that I’ve had with very senior talent reviews. A woman’s name will come up, and the leader will say, “Yeah, but they have three children, and they’ll never move.” You’ll say, “Did you ask them?” And they’ll say, “No, but I know they’ll never move.” That’s where you’ve got to call the leader on that and say, “Let’s ask them, let’s talk to them. Why do you believe that?” And by the way, they would never say that about a man. Never.
I asked Sharkey if she thinks she would have arrived at these same conclusions if she had been male. At first she said she wasn’t sure, but after giving it some thought, she said this:
Women would not have gotten as far as they have in corporate America if there weren’t males who supported that. Obviously, there are a lot of males who have supported that. I was at a Goldman Sachs conference where [JPMorgan Chase CEO] Jamie Dimon was sponsoring a “Women in Finance” discussion, and he was obviously supportive of that. Other people I know — my husband is a person who is out there promoting women and minorities, and helping to pull them up through the food chain. So now that I’m stopping to think about it, I think there are actually men who have come to the same conclusion, and who are doing things differently. But they’re not the majority. They’re the minority.
Sharkey wrapped up the conversation by stressing that companies need to start having a structured dialogue around unconscious bias, and they need to make it OK for people to talk about it:
We all have it — everybody has it. That’s why I started out by talking about the culture, who’s the in crowd and who’s the out crowd, why do we love this group, and not so much that group. In GE, for, example, the in crowd is the finance people — they can do no wrong. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be people who are different — it’s the belief systems people bring to work that may be getting in the way, and we really need to talk about what are some of those unconscious biases. We need to retrain our brains when we see those cropping up in our decision-making process.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.