Diversity: What's Not Working?

By Claire Lamont

We’ve moved forward in the last decade, with most companies now recognising the importance of transparency about diversity. Reports are made public and come with clear and genuine statements of intent. After all, there is plenty of research showing the clear benefits of a diverse workforce for both company culture and the bottom line. We also now see wider understandings of what diversity includes: while race and gender remain fundamental, many organisations are thinking about and creating policies around disability, LGBTQ+, and neuro-diversity.

But the figures are still pretty damning. Take some of our biggest, most outward-looking companies. Google has been the first to publicly admit that it has a diversity and inclusion problem. Despite policies and public statements, its diversity figures have basically flatlined for the past few years, with little real progress being made on hiring ethnic minorities and women. And their attrition rates, particularly for black employees, are nothing to write home about. These results are made public by Google and by all accounts there is every intention that things need to be improved, and quickly.

I don’t want to pretend that Google exists in a vacuum here. Obviously it functions in a tech space largely dominated by white caucasian male workers, and that is an industry-wide problem, with nuances in different organisations: Uber’s famous white male-dominated head office culture, for example.

It’s a tough bind for companies like Google who clearly want things to change, but seem pretty stuck as to how to make that change happen on the ground. Looking at the research, part of the problem seems to be that this is an area where rolling out training is simply not enough. A wide-ranging University of California study found that training is ineffective. The authors suggested that, in fact, training may create a ‘double-down’ effect where some people respond defensively, concerned for their own career advancement in a competitive business environment.

At first glance, this is frustrating. But there is a very primal human response to the message that you need to make space for another person, particularly if that person seems different from us. In a competitive culture, saying no is perhaps an understandable defence to the threat that your position, your job, your livelihood and sense of worth, could be taken from you. Closing down rather than opening up could well be the result, and we see this borne out in the ineffectiveness of training programmes.

Another issue with diversity is that, in itself, the creation of a diversity programme underlines the difference and ‘otherness’ of one person from another, reinforcing the idea of groups of people rather than our common humanity. I’m not denying the vital need to increase diversity within organisations. But it feels important to me that we consider how to balance privilege and unconscious bias and the effects of these on the life chances of people or groups in the minority, while maintaining empathy for what binds us - our similarity as well as our difference. This is a truly difficult balance, overriding many of our natural tendencies for binary, black-and-white thinking.

We spend a lot of time at Untapped thinking about the deeper dynamics of our interactions with each other, particularly in the workplace. When we talk about diversity, we are engaging with some very deep-seated human responses: At some level, it is about our instinctive fear of the Other, the unknown. Openness in the face of that does not come naturally to us. While training programmes in unconscious bias start to chip away at this, they’re clearly not enough. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that the people who largely opt-in to programmes like this are those who are already, to some extent, aware of their bias - somewhat defeating the purpose.

What is clear to many working in this area is that setting targets and running training is not enough, or can even be counter-productive. Inclusion needs to move to the heart of organisations; how we achieve this is the next great challenge.