What Does 'Diversity' Really Mean?

At Harvard Business School’s fourth annual Gender & Work Symposium, speakers reflected on how the language we use can either hold certain groups back or help point organizations toward positive social change.
by Dina Gerdeman

Many male business leaders have the right intentions when it comes to tackling the sticky issue of gender inequality in the workplace.

But try as they might to be more sensitive and inclusive with their language, men are quite simply bound to mess up sometimes, said workplace consultant David Mensah recently at Harvard Business School’s fourth annual Gender & Work Symposium.

“Men talk to me all the time about wanting to be more effective (with women) in certain settings,” said Mensah, an adjunct faculty member at Baruch College in New York. “I tell most men: You will never be good at talking to women. You will say what you’re going to say, and when you say something stupid, they will pull you aside and educate you. And you will listen to them. That’s the best you can do. That’s what you can achieve.”

Mensah was among the more than 100 researchers, journalists, activists, and business executives who attended the symposium to discuss how to address inequality issues and encourage greater diversity in the workplace. Held on the Harvard Business School campus on March 31 and April 1, the symposium was co-organized by Robin Ely, Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration at HBS, and HBS Associate Professor Amy Cuddy.

Billed as “Talking the Walk: Possibilities for Change Through Dialogue, Expression, and Narrative,” the symposium focused on communication, as speakers reflected on how the language we use can either hold certain groups back or help point organizations toward positive social change.

“We change the language; we change the conversation,” said writer and hip hop artist Bryonn Bain. “We don’t have a truly functional democracy if every voice is not heard.”

Mensah said if leaders want to create more diversity within their organizations, they need to do some serious self-reflection. Rather than give the idea lip service, they should take a hard look at where the organization currently stands and ask themselves: Why aren’t we already there?

“The reason those companies aren’t producing results isn’t because they don’t know how to produce results. They absolutely do,” Mensah said. “Courageous people do it all the time. They don’t need consultants to teach them. They don’t need training. You do it like you do everything else. You make it a priority. But they don’t want to do it. What you really want to do produces external results.”

What does 'diversity' really mean?

Keynote speaker Anna Holmes—founder of Jezebel.com, columnist for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, and editorial director of the digital company Fusion—recalled an event from a decade ago, while she was working as an editor at InStyle magazine: She pitched the idea of a beauty feature on the needs of women with different types of skin, showcasing a range of actresses of different backgrounds with large close-up shots. Holmes began to throw out some names, including Eva Mendes, Lucy Liu, and Alfre Woodard, but one of the magazine’s fashion editors cut her off and rejected the idea.

Holmes noted that a lot has changed since then. Last year, that same magazine gave plenty of space to six women of color, including Kerry Washington, Mindy Kaling, and Eva Longoria.

“One might argue that the InStyle editors … had finally gotten the long overdue message that’s being pushed in everything from the co-working spaces of technology startups to high fashion runways—namely, that diversity and equal representation are not only good business, but issues that really matter,” Holmes said.

Holmes posed a thoughtful question to the symposium attendees: What does “diversity” really mean?

“Is it a variety of types of rich, beautiful women on magazine covers?” she asked. “Is it a variety of types of magazine editors? A variety of types of people in power on the stages of award shows and in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies? Is it raw numbers? Is it who is in power? Is it who isn’t, but might be some day? Is it something else, something deeper?”

She said part of the problem is the way the word “diversity” is thrown around as a “self-congratulatory shorthand” by people in industries that have a “long way to go with regards to really pushing for parity, whether racial, sexual, or otherwise.”

She noted that in Silicon Valley, which is dominated by wealthy, white males, major technology firms are creating positions like “chief diversity officer” and are commissioning reports on the state of the industry. Yet these efforts “don’t seem to move the needle,” Holmes said.

Data compiled by Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and Pinterest in 2014 showed that the number of female workers at those companies was typically 30 percent or less of the staff and that the number of black and Hispanic employees was often 5 percent or less. At Facebook, a report released last year showed that the number of women and African-Americans saw little to no change from the year before.

The numbers were so bleak that in August 2015, President Obama called on the industry to try harder.

“Trying harder, to some, means talking about it,” Holmes said. “And I get it: Sometimes … you have to talk the talk before you walk the walk. But talk is often infuriatingly cheap.”

Holmes said it’s irritating that some business leaders seem to equate hiring a couple minority employees with making sweeping changes to corporate hiring and recruitment practices.

“The word [diversity] has become both euphemism and cliché,” she said, “a way to gesture at important ideas about inclusivity and representation without actually appearing to take them very seriously.”

Holmes acknowledged she didn’t have all the answers.

“The very first order of business is to admit that we understand very little – about ourselves, and of course, about others,” she said. “The second order of business, once we’ve done that, is to push back on the people in our lives who shoot down our ideas for creating and embodying equity. Demand more of ourselves and demand more of others. Every day.”

Celebrating the gains women have made

Some conference speakers pointed out that it’s important to celebrate the gains women have made over the years. For example, white women have made strides in education circles; these days they represent the majority of students in high school, college, and graduate school, said Aída Hurtado, a social psychologist who is Professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Women are still at a disadvantage compared to white men when it comes to pay, so these education gains haven’t led to an accumulation of wealth so far, but Hurtado believes “this will happen within 20 years.”

“We’ve created a generation of sweet, gender-conscious men. Many of them identify themselves as feminist,” she said. “This came out of the struggles of burning your bra and calling people a man-hater. That’s the way social change happens. When it happens, it seems ugly and one-sided, but if you persist, this is what you get.”

It’s clear that the business community still has its work cut out for it, particularly with research showing that women don’t fill nearly as many high-level leadership positions as men.

With that in mind, Catherine Tinsley, a professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, threw out an idea she said might be considered radical: She wondered whether all the rhetoric about being sensitive to gender and differences might be well-intended, but might actually be hurting women.

“Let’s start the dialogue with: We’re all alike. People are people,” she said. “If we can minimize the gender distinctions and differences, we might be in a better position.”

About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

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