Diversity in the workplace are we plastering over the wrong problem?

Written by
Wanda Wallace

05 Nov 2015

05 Nov 2015 • by Wanda Wallace

As an advisor to companies and executives struggling with how to make corporate management more accepting of and accessible to women and diverse populations, I’m frustrated with the lack of understanding of the root causes of the problem. In any other business area, corporations would not take actions without first understanding the nature of the problem to be solved. The same should apply to diversity. However, we think we understand. 

Its not that companies dont care

Businesses are taking action and spending a lot of money. Networks, women’s conferences, mentoring and sponsorship, flexible working, maternity coaching, unconscious and bias training are just some examples of these efforts. While they may provide some benefits, they are still not moving the needle substantially because they don’t address the real problem. They are simply putting a plaster over ‘symptoms’. 

The bottom of the problem

There are four key reasons we are making so little progress in retaining and promoting women, and other minorities. 

1. Poor managers
All employees are hurt by inadequate management, but women and diverse populations are more challenged when they are not managed well. When managers manage well and build trust with employees, diverse employees thrive. For example, there are fewer places a minority candidate can get feedback and advice if it isn’t coming from the manager because the access to informal mentors and networks is more complicated than for the majority. And to make matters worse, if managers are not helping build your network and reputation, it is hard to make up the gap on your own when you are in the minority.  

2. Misinterpreted feedback
A behavioral stylistic issue that is not addressed early in a career becomes a derailer – managers have to help diverse employees see these issues. Often women and minorities do not receive clear feedback early on and when they do it is often perceived as unconscious bias. Managers are often afraid to give clear and helpful feedback for fear of being accused of bias. 

We conducted research that showed women managers were actually more forceful than male managers but were given more leeway to behave in that way. Unfortunately this is not good for their careers long term. [1] Recently someone in talent development commented on how many women in the organisation had a tendency to be too strong in squashing an idea - the result was peers became highly resistant to her leadership. In my experience, this isn’t about bias. It is about over playing assertiveness in ways that damage relationships.  

3. Not practicing what you preach
 Another key problem is that we are not putting diverse employees in central, critical roles. We place them in roles that feel safe, maybe in niche markets or in supporting roles. As a result, they lack the experience to be credible candidates for senior leadership positions. For example, in financial services, we tend to put women in COO or chief of staff roles. While this gives her a seat at the management table, it doesn’t give her responsibility to build a business, drive results and lead a team – all of which are critical if she is going to move up beyond the current role. We must begin to direct women and minorities to central roles (e.g. in the core business, with key clients) if we want to see them lead at the highest levels. 

4. Uncomfortable networking
The last issue is difficult to solve. Businesses are run on networks and relationships. The way informal networking is done now – at bars, over golf, in the gym, chatting about cars or sports – isn’t a comfortable format for women – and for many men as well. Companies are going to have to get better at creating more inclusive networking opportunities.

If companies and managers want to see more women and minorities in top positions they are going to have to come to grips with the underlying problems, stop focusing on red herrings and instead fix the root causes.

  [1] Changing The Narrative on Why Women Aren’t Reaching the Top – Rob Kaiser and Wanda T. Wallace