Aligning Reality with the Ideal: Diversity Exec Working to Bridge Equity Gaps

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When Ellen Bailey, Senior Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, was growing up, she remembers her parents telling her, “You can be anything you want.” She took that to heart when she was a kid, but when she grew up and started looking at the statistics, she found out that “the reality is very, very different than the ideal.”

Ellen Bailey Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning

For example, Bailey cites a report from Fortune saying the number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies hit an all-time high in 2020. That sounds encouraging, but the tally is just 37 women leading the nation’s largest companies. None of those women was black, and just three were women of color.

“So, there’s still a long way to go, and there’s still quite the equity gap when it comes to gender for sure,” Bailey says. “It’s like women can get to a certain level, but actually running these large Fortune 500 companies doesn’t seem to be as realistic as we would like.”

That’s why Bailey, who began her career in the learning and development space, decided to move into the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) field. Since making the move, she’s thought about solutions that can solve the equity gap related not just to gender but also to various races and ethnicities.

Seeking Solutions

Recent years have seen corporations tout the benefits of diversity. Those organizations have been shown to be more productive because they’re more collaborative and innovative and therefore perform better financially, Bailey says. “We know that but taking that and applying it to practice and actually doing it is easier said than done.”

Even though many organizations embrace the idea of diversity, they often miss the mark. Bailey cites a November–December 2020 Harvard Business Review article by researchers Robin J. Ely and David A. Thomas that explains the problem.

Titled “Getting Serious About Diversity: Enough Already with the Business Case,” the article points out that employers don’t realize the benefits of diversity unless they actually learn from their people of diverse backgrounds.

Organizations need to do more than recruit and retain people from underrepresented groups. They benefit by “tapping their identity-related knowledge and experiences as resources for learning how the organization could perform its core work better,” the authors state.

“Our research showed that when companies take this approach, their teams are more effective than either homogeneous teams or diverse teams that don’t learn from their members’ differences,” the article says.

Learning from diverse team members is key to finding solutions to the equity gap. Also, promoting awareness of the problem is important, along with having some minimum requirements and standard policies and procedures, Bailey says.

Organizations need to make sure, as they review candidates for promotions, that the methods of evaluating candidates and the questions that are asked are equitable and designed to remove biases or microaggressions that people may have based on how decisions have been made in the past, she adds.

Convincing Management

When working to increase diversity and equity within an organization, helping senior management understand the problem is key. How does Bailey communicate the issue? “I honestly just continue to pull out the statistics, and I align it then to what our business strategy is.”

Bailey says that growing through innovation is important to her organization. So, because that’s a goal, the organization needs diversity of thought, and if everyone mostly looks the same and is the same gender and the same generation, “we’re not going to have the diversity of thought,” she asserts. “We’re not going to be able to have productive and robust debates that drive to new solutions and problem solve.”

Her own company has seen success stories related to management’s getting creative about improving diversity. For several years, Harvard Business Publishing’s HR department put in the effort to improve gender equality.

“And it worked,” Bailey says. “So, we now have over 50% of our population identify as female, she/her, and they are at all levels of the organization.” As a result of that representation, the organization has seen revenue increases year after year, even in the pandemic.

Importance of Training

Diversity-related training “needs to happen for sure,” Bailey says, as training can create a level of awareness about what an organization needs to do differently. And just as senior management needs to understand the importance of diverse representation throughout the organization, senior leaders also need to model the behaviors training aims to promote.

Training is not a “silver bullet,” however, and shouldn’t be a onetime effort, Bailey says. It needs to be integrated into the organization’s daily work and behaviors.

Sometimes diversity training sparks pushback, and dealing with that can be tough, Bailey notes, but focusing on the organization’s mission and values can help overcome resistance.

Anyone not in alignment with the organization’s mission and values may “potentially need to consider going to another company,” Bailey says, adding there “has to be some lines in the sand as far as behaviors that are tolerated and not tolerated.”

Sourcing, Hiring, Retaining

Sourcing and hiring practices are vital, and just as with training, commitment from senior leadership is necessary, Bailey says. “It’s not just the recruiting function. It’s not an HR responsibility. It’s all of us collectively. It’s our responsibility.”

Bailey adds that everyone needs to broaden their networks. “I always say that women and people of color are not hiding. Nobody’s hiding. We just aren’t going to the right places.”

When she gets pushback from managers who claim attracting a diverse slate is too time-consuming, Bailey counters that once the organization’s networks are built out and resources expanded—for example, by joining different groups on LinkedIn and associating with various professional groups such as those made up of women in technology or black MBAs—positions can be filled quicker.

Being mindful of how job descriptions are written is also necessary. Instead of using the profile of the last person in a position, Bailey advises starting from scratch and thinking about what will help take a team to the next level.

“So, let us really be mindful of how we write that job description and the language we use to make sure that it is also inclusive and not exclusive,” Bailey says. Having multiple sets of eyes on the job description is helpful in keeping unconscious biases from thwarting the process.

The onboarding process is another key piece. Bailey says most organizations are good at onboarding—at least at the beginning. They give new hires a mentor and help them connect and network, but too often, unless the new hire is “on some sort of high potential leadership track, after those first 90 days, it’s like ‘Good luck,’” she says.

That means leaders need to think about how to ensure that new hires understand they have the same opportunities as everybody else.

Getting Past the Naysayers

No matter how connected new hires feel and how committed an organization is to sustaining a diverse workforce, there will be some who feel threatened by diversity initiatives and don’t understand how they might be benefiting from the privilege of being in the majority.

“When people say privilege, privilege doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard,” Bailey says. “It didn’t mean you didn’t have some hard times. However, assumptions are made based on gender and appearance. When someone looks at a man versus a women, assumptions are made.  This initial judgement is even more pronounced when it comes to people of color.”

Bailey adds that an equitable workplace is fair for everyone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone has to be treated the same way. “And I think once we understand that collectively, then yes, there’s a time where we need to raise others up, and that takes some extra effort and that’s what we do to create equity.”

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