Davos Agenda

Q&A with Melonie Parker: The rise of the 'Chief Diversity Officer' and why it matters

Melonie Parker, Google's Chief Diversity Officer, speaks to the Forum about her role, and its importance for the overall business strategy.

Melonie Parker, Google's Chief Diversity Officer, speaks to the Forum about her role, and its importance for the overall business strategy. Image: Google

Pooja Chhabria
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Melonie Parker, Chief Diversity Officer at Google, discusses the importance of creating a culture of inclusivity where everyone feels they can bring their best selves to work.
  • The Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) role is becoming critical for organizations, with about 53% of Fortune 500 companies now having a CDO or equivalent role.
  • But the role comes with its own challenges at a time of significant setbacks in social and economic inclusion. How can DEI efforts be strengthened as a strategic imperative?

"Our workplaces should be safe havens, where we can bring the best of who we are into them.

"[When we do], innovation is better. We work better together. And we accomplish the business strategy faster," Melonie Parker, Google's Chief Diversity Officer, tells the Forum.

The Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) role is becoming critical for organizations. Among Fortune 500 companies, 53 percent now have a CDO or equivalent role and more than 60 have, since May 2020, appointed their first-ever diversity leader, estimates from McKinsey suggest.

The World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report 2023 found that more than two-thirds of the organizations surveyed have a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programme, with women as the most common priority group for surveyed organizations' DEI programmes across all regions and industries.

The timing is also critical, with the events of recent years showing that any progress made is easily reversible. The pandemic has caused a generational loss in gender parity, for example, increasing the projected time to reach global parity from 100 to 132 years.

LGBTQIA+ individuals continue to face stigma and discrimination, and only a small percentage of businesses are focused on the inclusion of people with disabilities.

The role itself comes with its own challenges, with about 60% of those holding CDO positions and their equivalents in 2018 having left the role. The reasons range from ambiguity about what the role should entail to the limited availability of organizational resources and support.

Share of DEI programme priorities, according to the Future of Jobs Report.
Share of DEI programme priorities, according to the Future of Jobs Report. Image: World Economic Forum, Future of Jobs Report 2023

How can organizations address these struggles and strengthen efforts made towards diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)? We sat down for an interview with Melonie Parker to discuss the importance of her role, her journey, and what it takes to overcome challenges at an organization that operates in 200+ countries.

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Have you read?
  • The Future of Jobs Report 2023

How would you describe this role?

The role of a Chief Diversity Officer is about influencing every part of the company. It feels like many jobs wrapped up into one.

What we're influencing from a cultural standpoint is that everyone feels like they belong in that environment. And by belonging, I mean they feel they can come in and bring out the best parts of who they are. It also means that every group represented can progress, come in, and get promoted at the same rate.

What we're looking for is: Are there any gaps in how people are experiencing the culture, how people are progressing in the environment, and how we are retaining that talent across as well? And then, that is important to innovation for the company's products or services. And it's also crucial to how the company can meet business goals and achieve its business strategy.

What does success mean in this role?

Success at the highest level means that everybody, across every identity, can see themselves working at Google and that they don't see any barriers to their success.

When we released our first diversity annual report, we were focused on women and minorities. But looking at lived experiences through our employee survey, we now have 18 different identities we include because we've matured to look at our communities intersectionally.

We're not flattening people by making them like a single dimension.

Who comes into the frame of being underrepresented or marginalized continues to expand. And so we have to be on watch and attuned continually. This is why the data is essential - to understand what needs to happen to continue to close the gaps to parity. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

Why is it important not to 'flatten people by making them like a single dimension' at work?

I identify as a black woman, and for a very long time in my career, I did what was called code-switching, where I checked a part of myself at the proverbial door.

I took the part of myself that I thought would be acceptable in corporate America, and that was how I navigated work. And then, on my way out the door, I picked it up. My vernacular changed, and I could embrace all of myself outside of that.

We're not flattening people by making them like a single dimension.

Melonie Parker, Chief Diversity Officer, Google

But when I made the switch and no longer did that, my experiences were richer and deeper because I didn't have to leave part of myself behind to be accepted.

What are some of these challenges you're currently looking at?

We are currently looking to ensure that we're retaining our talent. I have a 'Stay and Thrive' team that works with underrepresented communities.

When we find out that people are considering leaving, we assign a case manager to help them navigate what's going on, whether that's internal mobility or a challenge in their work environment. And then, we help make Google small enough for people to navigate. We follow them one year after being in our program to ensure they're still having success.

We also ensure all our Googlers can progress in their career. So we have programs for women and underrepresented minorities in the United States that are part of our 'Pathways to Sponsorship' programs. We co-curate an environment where they have access to mentors and a network they wouldn't have otherwise had. And we see success with promotions coming across those groups.

Google is leveraging its employee resource groups to ensure its products are universally accessible.
Google is leveraging its employee resource groups to ensure its products are universally accessible.

We first saw this for women getting into executive leadership through promotions rather than hiring externally, which is a healthy organic metric to track. And we extended that program to underrepresented minorities as well.

We're now looking closely across all demographics to understand where the gaps to parity might be. And we're designing initiatives that are tailored to those groups so that we can make progress.

You've called diversity a superpower. How did your professional journey prepare you for this role?

I grew up in a small town in North Carolina, where my father was a factory worker. My mother worked at the bank and later at the post office.

My brother and I are the first generation to go to college, and I'm also first generation corporate America. When I came into this space, I was able to leverage those experiences of growing up in a predominantly black community to working-class parents: towards empathy that's required to make sure that everybody around me feels included, towards personally creating a safe environment for others, and then using that to ask intuitive questions.

I have used diversity as a superpower to ask strategic questions around 'what's missing at the table?' and open up the space for dialogue to do a calling in, not a calling out. And that has helped.

Often, I have found that there are blind spots that happen and people don't recognize some others are being left out or that people don't enjoy the same access or advantage that they have. And it's appreciated to help bring that insight to them in a way that is a 'calling in'.

I have used diversity as a superpower to ask strategic questions around 'what's missing at the table?' and open up the space for dialogue to do a calling in, not a calling out.

Melonie Parker, Chief Diversity Officer, Google

What advice would you give to Talent from diverse backgrounds on bringing themselves to work?

One of the things that helped me was having a wide range of mentors who could tell me: what are the unofficial norms? How do you navigate this path?

When I went to corporate America, my parents couldn't help me navigate because they hadn't been there. And finding these mentors helped.

I advise others to find a mentor or even a mentee that's different from you. I went to a high-potential talent program at my previous job, and they gave me a black woman as a mentor. And I said, 'I have access to black women all day. Could you find me a white male mentor? Because I haven't had a lot of access to white men.'

Be curious about other people, the other point of view, and then have empathy and put yourself in the other person's position.

And how can organizations help?

In diversity, it's important to curate spaces where we can bring people together. One of the things we do at Google is to celebrate Heritage Month, and we open this up to everybody so you can learn about experiences that are different from how you grew up.

These experiences are for people to learn and grow in a safe way so they can be better allies.

How can we go beyond seeing DEI efforts as 'nice to have' and make it a strategic imperative?

We must look beyond diversity as more than a moral imperative and as a critical part of our business strategy.

Google's diversity goals are part of our overall business strategy, and I am proud to report we met our Racial Equity Commitment of increasing leadership representation of Black+, Latinx+, and Native American+ Googlers by 30%, three years ahead of our intended schedule.

For our employees beyond the US, we adopt a local approach. For example, in India, we have a program called DigiPivot that focuses on digital upskilling for women as part of our efforts to close the digital gender gap.

Data empowers us, and we believe that data powers progress. We leverage our employee resource groups to ensure our products are universally accessible, and it has led to incredible innovation, like our true tone technology in the Pixel phones.

Companies should look at this as a key part of the business strategy and then understand what their data says regarding the baseline of how people are experiencing their company and progressing. And then design initiatives that address gaps based on the data.

So what comes next?

The efforts of early investment we made have paid off. Over the last ten years, we normalized discussing diversity and inclusion in the workplace and externally. So that's helped us contribute to the broader diversity landscape across the world.

But it's important to note that no company or organization can do this alone. We have to do this work as a collective.

So over the next five years, creating a set of common global standards and competencies and linking virtual arms will be incredibly important to build a society we all want to see.

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Davos AgendaDiversity and InclusionFuture of Work
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