In pursuit of living up to anti-racist pledges, many companies have prioritized hiring “diverse” talent to increase representation of Black employees. But this “quick fix” for racial equity doesn’t actually create an environment that’s actually inclusive of people of color. Language is one part of the problem. The term “diverse” erases individuals’ racial, gender, and disability characteristics, and it can result in “othering” the very people you want to include. Fostering an inclusive culture requires not only getting the language right, but also seeking education about racial inequity, measuring more categories of race, and valuing inclusion in hiring, feedback, performance reviews, and promotions.
More than eight months have passed since the murder of George Floyd and eleven since that of Breonna Taylor. Many tech firms have since published statements in response to anti-Black violence, and leaders have offered pledges to engage in anti-racist behaviors and lists of related actions.
But despite companies’ pledges to change the workplace, 42% of Black women report feeling uncomfortable sharing their thoughts on racial inequity and 22% feel they can’t talk about the impact current events have on them or people in their communities. Organizations have been asked to stop expecting their Black employees to solve the problem or educate their colleagues. Backlash against organizations’ anti-racism efforts is causing some to retreat. So now what?
At the VMware Women’s Leadership Lab, we’ve worked with hundreds of managers seeking to value diversity and inclusion in their organizations. We’ve found that many organizations are prioritizing hiring “diverse” talent to increase representation of Black employees. But simply hiring new talent won’t create a culture where Black women and other people of color actually feel included. As the recent high-profile case of Timnit Gebru demonstrates, even when highly respected experts are hired to speak up, leaders are more likely to point fingers at them than make changes. Seeking a quick fix for racial equity in this way is not only ineffective, it comes with uncalculated costs. Company leaders who are serious about making good on their pledges of anti-racism should instead shift the target of change — stop looking for an individual to solve your racial equity challenges and instead create conditions for BIPOC employees to thrive.
Resist the “Quick Fix”
Many organizations that have made their first step toward racial equity to find “diverse” talent don’t realize the problematic framing of this approach. It’s partly a problem of linguistics. The term “diverse” is often misused as a shorthand for underrepresented populations. But lumping a wide range of people into the category of diverse erases the racial, gender, and disability characteristics leaders want to value.
One leader described diverse as “any non-male or male person of color, a veteran, gender non-conforming person, or person with a disclosed disability.” This definition separated the company into just two groups: white heterosexual, non-veteran, able men — and everybody else. When we pointed this out to him, he was confounded. The term diverse ended up reinforcing an us versus them paradigm, in which white men were treated as us (or the “in” group), and everyone else as the “out” group — the other, “diverse.” The usage resulted in othering the very people he sought to include.
Further, diverse should be used to define the composition of a group. A group can be diverse, but an individual cannot be. When a group is diverse, leaders can value how every person contributes to the group diversity, as opposed to adding one person who seems unlike the rest and calling them diverse. When leaders see their team as a diverse group or portfolio, they’re more likely to see and value the additive contribution of individuals instead of essentializing differences.
Last, and possibly most problematic, using the term diverse can obscure talent instead of bringing it to the foreground. As Bianca Reed illustrates, the problem follows candidates into the workplace. A “diverse” candidate becomes a “diversity hire,” and fellow employees are more likely to see the new employee’s difference and less likely to see their actual talents. The question posed to Reed, “How does it feel to know you were a diversity hire?” overlooks the multitude of qualifications she brings to the workplace. By focusing on her race and gender, the organization is blinding others from seeing all she could contribute.
Value Diversity Without “Othering”
You won’t make progress on racial equity until you get the language and focus right. The following strategies can help leaders actually foster inclusion in their organizations.
Start with education. In order to frame the target of change so that it doesn’t inadvertently reinforce barriers, you must first understand racial inequity, why it persists, and why terms like “diverse candidate” can be counterproductive. There are many resources available, such as the “Anti-Racism and Allyship 7 Day Journey”; as the name suggests, this is an ongoing process, not a one-time read. Once you’ve done some research, you can get to work on the language of inclusion.
Talk with specificity. You may feel more comfortable using umbrella terms like “diversity” instead of talking about specific identities, and you may also feel unsure of the right thing to say. For example, should you say African American, Black, or BIPOC? When should you use Asian American or Asian American and Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander? And what about LGBTQIA+, queer, or sexual orientation? The thing is, these terms are more than “categories” — they reflect who people are, so as you learn how people see themselves, you’ll also learn to see them more clearly. And because people evolve, how they define themselves and their groups may also evolve. Take time to lean into what matters to others; instead of looking for a “fix,” take the opportunity to focus on creating space for people to thrive. Try to approach this journey with cultural humility instead of focusing on your discomfort. You may find that not only are you gaining skills in the language of inclusion but that you’re indeed fostering belonging.
Measure more categories of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, and status. This idea isn’t new; the U.S. Census created standards in 1997 to manage written responses to race data collected in the census, which includes five, not one, categories of race. Some organizations point to the difficulty of gathering such data, especially in light of global regulations around reporting of race and ethnicity, for example. Others hide small numbers that could identify individuals. Yet, despite these challenges, showing data from more categories, not fewer, is inclusive and warrants exploration. Take, for example, this announcement of Stanford’s incoming MBA class. Stanford Graduate School of Business leaders heard from students that they wanted more of their identities represented, not fewer, so the creative director created new visualizations to include the specific intersecting identities of multiracial students.
One organization shared the difficulty of showing progress in including underrepresented groups when they’re not able to lump them together under the title “diverse.” For example, when the Black population goes up and the Latinx population goes down, they want to show that overall progress has been made. Yet this approach works against the very reason diversity is being measured. By lumping everyone together, the organization is implying, if unintentionally, that the addition of an Asian woman replaces the loss of a Black man, for example. This can run counter to the organization’s goal to attract, retain, and promote diversity, and it risks making some people less important than others. Every person’s story is unique and important. Orienting around specific identities instead can move the organization — and how it measures success — toward inclusion, not away from it.
Name and value inclusion in hiring, feedback, performance reviews, and promotions. You can attract, retain, and promote people based on their competencies with inclusion and the language of diversity. For example, a growing number of universities now include a diversity statement in their applications for faculty positions. This not only signals the importance of diversity, but it also sets an expectation that both the interviewer and the candidate be competent in the language of diversity and inclusion. You can take this idea and adapt it to your process. In the interview, ask how the applicant has contributed to diversity and inclusion in their past roles.
While practicing the language of inclusion may seem like additional work on top of an already full workload, instead consider the cost of not doing so, especially to your colleagues of color. They’re likely already paying what Dr. Tsedale Melaku calls an “inclusion tax,” or the “time, money, and mental and emotional energy required to gain entry to and acceptance from traditionally white and male institutional spaces.” Like being asked to get coffee when you’re leading a meeting, not catering it, or hearing a joke about Black people and colleagues laughing about it. Using terms like “diverse candidate” not only adds salt to the wound, but it perpetuates a culture that levies an inclusion tax on the very people you seek to value. Getting the language right is essential and can open the door to fostering a rich and diverse world of inclusion in which every person is seen and valued.