These are the dark times for diversity: in an era of walls, barricades and divisive rhetoric, how can it can ever hope to thrive? But then maybe it was always doomed to failure. Even in happier, more inclusive times the drive for diversity has always had a decidedly chequered history.
Progress over recent years has been sluggish at best. Google’s data-driven diversity programme cost $2.65m but failed to significantly change the composition of its workforce. The organisation is as white and male as ever. Over the past two years, the number of women in technical positions has increased by just 1%; the number of African Americans has not increased at all. The announcement by Jeffrey Siminoff, Twitter’s head of diversity, that he will resignat the end of this month , spoke volumes about the perceived failures of the company’s diversity programmes. Google’s diversity chief, Nancy Lee, stepped down last year, indicating that the malaise may be becoming endemic.
This bleak outlook is confirmed by a University of California study that surveyed more than 829 companies’ diversity programmes over a period of 31 years. With more than 16,000 data points (each data point being a workplace in a particular year), its conclusion was damning: “Neither diversity training to extinguish stereotypes, nor diversity performance evaluations to provide feedback and oversight to people making hiring and promotion decisions, have accomplished much.”
So why have these programmes failed, and have they caused more division than unity? The same study concludes that “white men often respond negatively to training – particularly if they are concerned about their own careers. If diversity training cannot eliminate stereotypes, and if it can elicit backlash, perhaps it is not surprising that, on average, it does not revolutionise the workplace.”
The uncomfortable truth is that corporate power is often understood as a zero-sum game: if a programme promises to empower a specific group of people, other groups may feel disempowered. Meanwhile, those being targeted by the programme are often reticent to get involved, not wanting to be identified as minority, and therefore excluded from the mainstream. Even enlightened, sympathetic white males are often afraid of participating, worried they will be singled out.
This means that the divisions start even before people get in the room. Diversity programmes divide, separating those on the inside from those trapped outside and reinforcing separate group identities. And given that most programmes are voluntary, it is all too easy for self-selection to reinforce attitudes.
This means that the white, middle-class, college-educated men who could benefit from what the training has to offer simply don’t bother turning up. Erica Joy Baker, an African American former Google engineer witnessed this first-hand, commenting: “The only people who show up are the people who are already thinking about and working on those biases, and the people who really need it aren’t going.”
The final challenge facing diversity is that so many of us fail to see how little of it there is to go around. Most companies are guilty of embedding unconscious bias into their processes – always favouring the white, middle-class male, while the lucky elite are not even aware that they have been born with a winning hand. In the words of Prof Michael Kimmel: “Privilege is invisible to those who have it.” How do you combat a bias when the very people who have the power and resources to do so are not even aware that it exists?
So how do we hit on an inclusive approach that doesn’t alienate groups or underline divisions? The answer is to avoid binaries, whether racial, ethnic or gender-based, as they only go to reinforce the sense of self v other. It was witnessing the way that most men and half of women don’t want to be part of gender programmes that made me consider an alternative approach. I moved away from gender diversity (I ran a company called Lady Geek for five years) and began to shift towards “empathy” as a value that a company can measure and embed in the organisation from top to bottom.
This approach was confirmed to me while running projects aimed at changing the way technology companies market to women. The programmes that were most effective at improving outcomes for women also improved things for men. Whether we were running internal culture programmes or implementing changes to communications, we saw increased satisfaction scores among both genders. Instead of making a corporation more female-friendly we helped it become more human-friendly. These were changes that were neither targeted nor driven explicitly by gender or racial concerns.
The new criterion was based on what we called corporate empathy – because increasing a company’s level of humanity doesn’t just help one minority or another, it raises the bar for everyone. Corporate empathy affects an organisation in a deeper and more universal way than diversity. It’s not just how colleagues treat each other – empathy has an impact on company culture, product design, complaint handling and the very environment we work in. These are cultures that people want to work in, and that increase employees’ sense of belonging.
Empathy is also an easier sell than diversity – it taps into our innate desire to want to play fairly and be treated fairly. This means that companies are far more open to the message, and willing to commit budgets to ensure programmes are sustainable. Diversity’s weakness is that it emphasises otherness. It might champion the other, it might even acclaim, praise and extol the other, but the other always remains just that: other. And in this increasingly polarised society otherness has become an extremely fragile currency.
It’s the end of an era for diversity programmes. In their place we must promote empathy to avoid power struggles and neutralise fears and suspicions. In these fractured and divisive times empathy has the power to unite us.