Despite Increased Focus on Diversity and Inclusion, Expert Shares 3 Areas Where Companies Still Fall Short

November 13, 2017

When it comes to true diversity in the workplace—of age, gender, race, ethnicity, orientation—we are still a lot further away than people realize. From male and millennial-dominated tech companies, to the struggles faced by still-closeted LGBTQs, the U.S. workplace faces more nuanced, persistent obstacles than can be fixed with blanket legislation and pretty words.

Jennifer Brown has been working to smash through these obstacles for over a decade. A diversity and inclusion expert, Brown consults Fortune 500 companies, encouraging the shift in organizational culture necessary for all employees to feel welcome and self-actualized at work. Her book, Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will to Change, is a call to action, guiding corporations through the tough issues of true diversification.

There’s a long way to go, and Brown isn’t one to indulge companies by assuring them they’re doing the best they can. Overcoming past wrongs takes hard work and a radical change in thinking that some just haven’t fully committed to yet—including plenty of people who are convinced they’re trying. In today’s post, Brown shares insights on the state of diversity in the U.S. workplace today, and what exactly can be done about it.  

Almost half of all LGBTQ workers are closeted at work, and this fosters unhealthy working habits

“Nobody’s talking about it,” Brown says, noting that about 42% of LGBTQ employees are still closeted in the workplace. “The vast majority of companies don’t have diversity programs in place and even if they do, people still choose to be closeted.”

Some employers might shrug at this. After all, it seems, at least on the surface, to be an individual choice. But the reasons for remaining closeted can be shocking. Some LGBTQ workers judge that they’re not safe to open about it in their line of business.

As a result, Brown says many create “an elaborate lie” to fit in, perhaps even going so far as to plant “heterosexual pictures” on their desk. The effects this has on the psyche can be immensely damaging, leading LGBTQ employees to feel increasingly distanced from their coworkers and under pressure to maintain a network of lies.

“‘Covering’ is very pernicious,” Brown argues. “I was at a high-level executive women’s lesbian gathering where we talked about what is said about you as you move up in the company. A common answer was that ‘people don’t know you.’ [But] relationships and trust are everything when management decides who should get that big assignment [or] client. That’s the tragedy of not being able to bring your full trust into the workplace, especially when you get more senior. You can’t bring that part of who you are.”

To make up for this, many queer employees feel the need work exhaustingly hard. “If you work 40 hours, I work 80 hours,” says Brown. “They downplay, thinking ‘if they know who I am, it will hurt me.’”

Making the workplace LGBTQ friendly doesn’t mean throwing open the closet and dragging people out before they’re ready. It means taking steps (even baby steps) toward making the company more inclusive, fostering a culture that gives all employees the confidence to be their true selves without fear of discrimination or repercussion.

Millennials are ready for diversity at work, but often find that companies are too old-school to deliver it

Millennials get a lot of mud flung at them in the media for being lazy and entitled and, increasingly, for being “snowflakes.” The latter is a derogatory brush used to tar those seen as overly sensitive. But the truth is, many millennials are just more ready for diversity than their older peers. They enter the workplace expecting to find it—and more often than not, they’re disappointed.

“The vast majority of companies have no diversity objectives at all. They are not talking about it beyond race and gender,” says Brown.

This can be especially disheartening for diverse millennials, and may dissuade them from applying at all. “When they look at the masthead and the board, they don’t see people who look like them,” Brown points out. “They come in feeling like they’re a post-diversity generation, and in corporate America, everything comes to a screeching halt. Companies are really at risk of retaining millennials when they don’t make diversity and inclusion a priority—and demonstrate a visible commitment.”

Sweeping diversity policies overlook countless areas, and companies need to give these more consideration. One example Brown gives is transgender and gender non-conforming employees being forced to check a binary gender box on HR forms.

There are those who will roll their eyes at a problem like that, but for the employees it impacts, it can be uncomfortable at best and humiliating at worst. To bring the concern closer to home, imagine you are a straight white male (plenty of you probably are) and on your first day at a new job, you have to tick off your gender on a form… but the only options are for “woman” or “transgender woman.” You’d likely feel pretty excluded.

Now imagine every form you encounter has the same effect.

“I hope that when younger people are interviewing for a job, if it doesn’t fit with their values, they won’t take it,” Brown says. Gravitating towards companies that match their values will not only make their working lives more meaningful, but could be the wake-up call that others need to change.

If they do take a job in an organization with an “old-school” approach to diversity, Brown encourages millennials to “become a change agent within the company.” For recruiters and HR professionals, this means being open to what employees have to say about diversity, acknowledging mistakes, and taking steps towards change. It doesn’t happen on its own.

Unconscious bias is very real and incredibly hard to root out, but ignoring it won’t make it go away

If you’ve never been the target of it yourself, it’s all too easy to believe that a lack of overt homophobic, racist, or sexist behaviour in the workplace means such attitudes have been left at the door. But insidious prejudice—the kind that lurks at the subconscious level and creeps into workplace affairs from the recruitment process through to the C-Suite—is not a switch that employees flip off just because you’ve implemented an inclusion policy.

“It’s hard to catch people and organizations in the act of unconscious bias,” Brown says. “These days, most people know the minefields and recognize the offensive comments that they shouldn’t generally verbalize at work. Unconscious bias lives under the water, but it has this sort of disastrous effect for anyone who’s not a white, straight, cisgender man.”

This is especially clear in the tech industry, where only 15% of women work in technical positions. Brown points to a number of tech companies that released their diversity information to, in her words, “shine a light on the wound because sunlight makes it better.” But recognizing bias isn’t enough to instigate change in and of itself—year over year, those numbers remain stagnant. The wound isn’t going to heal with just a bandaid and a kiss. As plenty of women can attest, there are all too many men who don’t understand that, with open discussions about diversity often derailed by comments that we’ve already “fixed” that issue.

“Awareness is only half the battle,” Brown says, noting that many companies have deployed transparency training to make their recruitment efforts fairer. In fact, she argues that increasing awareness about biases can sometimes worsen the problem: “It can be used as a rationale for trainees to say, ‘It’s unconscious bias. I can’t help it.’” That kind of attitude can lead to false justifications about prejudice, making it even harder to root out.

But Brown is confident that improvement can be made. “Leadership really needs to come and say, ‘We’re going to train in unconscious bias and we’re going to hold you accountable for behavior change.’” With “intentional, overt accountability measures for recruiters,” she stresses, no one gets a free pass to justify their biases. Tough, but more than fair.

What this means for you

“Diversity is everyone’s issue,” Brown advises recruiters. “Talk about [your] commitment to inclusion—and [have the] conversation with everyone.” That includes sitting yourself down and asking some tough questions about your own unconscious biases and how they might manifest on the job.

Little changes—like removing masculine-gendered language (words like “rock star” and “champion”) from job descriptions—can have a big impact. Embrace any opportunity to educate yourself; diversity training shouldn’t be met with a shrug or an eye-roll, but with open arms.

Yes, there will be slip-ups. But the argument that it’s too hard to change your beliefs doesn’t fly anymore. If you mess up, apologize and learn from your mistake. Ask a candidate's preferred pronouns if you’re unsure.

It takes everyone to start making an effort in these areas for progress to be made, and the result will be a working culture that is more positive, productive, and welcoming for all.

Photo by Levi Saunders

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