"One of These Things is not Like The Others": Diversity Observations in Industry
"Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth." - Simone de Beauvoir
I began writing this blog post at another critical, seemingly ironic juncture: I finished my employment term with a (mostly white)* large, multinational manufacturing company a couple of days before heading to a conference for students of color pursuing a Business PhD.
On my last walk out of the company, I saw a photo of the Diversity Statement and Board of Directors that intrigued me.
I am both privileged and plagued by the day-to-day consequences of my research interests. As an aspiring scholar of diversity, discrimination (all the -isms), and social inequity, I often times see or experience things differently than others. Perhaps it isn't so much a difference in perception, but perhaps my vantage is one that is trained to see what's often overlooked. For example, phrases that might seem appear innocuous to a general audience like, men should cherish and protect women, actually sounds a lot to me like sexism. Now while I know that this singular idea isn't inherently problematic, ideas like this when taken together resemble benevolent sexism described by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske. This is just one example, but one that is pretty common in everyday experiences. (For a contemporary and sort of tangential example of this phenomena see Cam Newton's recent media flounder and the comments defending his behavior)
Last summer when I ventured out of the research lab and into an industry internship, I was slightly concerned that some of the organizational issues I had studied, planned to study, and read about would manifest in ways I was not particularly prepared for (read: examples that I didn't have the chill to let slide).
It is no secret that manufacturing is mostly male and mostly white--about 75 percent. So when I took this opportunity I knew the sort of environment I was getting into: one where few people in leadership positions looked like me and one where those who did look like me lacked what I believe is adequate compensation**.
Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed my time there. I even returned for a portion of the subsequent summer. I was pleased to see that relationships had been forged with local universities, which meant students of color would get exposure and access to opportunities, but some of the same issues (and even new ones) became particularly salient. While I won't dive into the nitty-gritty, they really brought to the forefront what I think is a central shortcoming in organizations: lack of representation in senior level positions.
While the literature is sort of split on the effects of diversity in general (often called a double-edged sword), literature has demonstrated that representation among management levels positively affects performance (e.g., Pitts, 2005). Research also suggests that organizations that adopt colorblind (e.g., "We don't see differences in our employees") and tokenism (e.g., "We capitalize on the differences of our employees") ideologies are less favorable among all studied ethnicity than those that adopt multiculturalist (e.g., We celebrate differences among our employees") ideologies. For example, in one study, researchers showed people different types of the aforementioned diversity statements and found that most people, regardless of race, favored the multicultural framing (Stephens, 2017). Now that isn't particularly surprising for me. Anecdotally, I've discussed what I call "unsatisfactory diversity statements" and "compelling diversity statements" with friends and basically what I find is that people of color can see through the vague and naive attempts at diversity statements. Perhaps thats a function of my subset of friends (to whom diversity and representation are important), but consider this statement:
I would say this statement sort of flirts with a multiculturalist approach (the kind that both favors ethnic minorities and women), but is effectively a tokenistic approach. Specifically, the celebration of differences discussed is in an attempt to leverage it for performance outcomes, not out of respect and admiration for a workforce that values the person.
So it didn't surprise me one bit that after reading this statement, which is interestingly situated next to the photo of the board of directors, that representation (though one could make the argument for diversity here)***, is lacking:
The thing that sort of drew me in first though, was the way in which it seems they are aware of discrepancies. Yes you are seeing this correctly--and here is where the title of this post comes in: indeed one aspect of this photo is not like the other (and there are aspects that are just totally absent, but that is a separate point). Yes there is only one woman and yes everyone is white or Asian.
Now I only point any of this out to suggest that I think there are a few questions that come to mind here--or at least there were for me. The first is that after reading a statement like theirs****, I find myself wondering whether or not it would be more beneficial to not even have one? Does this do more damage than good?***** And next, I find myself wondering what exactly my advancement prospects would look like. While this is the absolute pinnacle of success at an organization so perhaps it shouldn't be understood as a necessarily logical or normative progression, the question is still germane.
As I stated earlier, the nature of my research interests really informs the way I think--though negative at times, sometimes it motivates me to really keep at it. Clearly I understand that at the end of the day there are a multitude of factors that play into organizational decisions, and the goal is ultimately to make money. Now and again I wish some companies would pause, reflect, and consider the implications of both explicit and implicit messages...and once they've done that to then ACT to change those messages for the better.
* When I say mostly whitw, I am referring mostly to management level employees; those who make decisions or carry out decisions. Most of the employees who actually build and assemble the products and minorities. Wherein lies what I believe is a central problem.
**To be fair I think most people aren't paid adequately so this isn't a something specific to this organization.
*** I think diversity is often conflated (I too make this mistake) with representation. So while the photo below doesn't necessarily portray an ethnically representative photo, it could be seen as diverse in that there is a wide rage of difference in the photo.
**** I also don't believe this organization is different than most. This is just a very salient example to which I had access.
*****I should note here that this is all contingent on a perspective or current employee actually caring about things like this, but I did so here it is.