Ask the White Guy: Can You Measure Diversity of Thought and Innovation?

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

Ask the White Guy Diversity of Thought, Innovation

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Question: I hear a lot these days that diversity is not just about diversity in ethnicity and gender. It is also, to a great extent, about diversity of thoughts. I agree with that. My question is: How do we measure success in diversity of thoughts? A company can hire only white men below 40 and claim total diversity in thought.

My concern is that focus on diversity of thought may derail the need for increasing diversity , does greatly contribute to diversity of thought.

Do you consider diversity of thought in your ranking of the DiversityInc Top 50?

Answer: You’re right; these days, “diversity of thought” is a big topic in diversity management. I also think you’re right in that diversity of thought can be disconnected from diversity as defined by race, gender, orientation, disability and/or age.

In my observation, the dominant or “majority” culture is defined by superior access to the governmental process, access to education and access to capital. In our country, this has been sharply defined by white, Christian, heterosexual men with no disabilities. Despite the Voting Rights Act (access to the governmental process), Civil Rights Act (access to education), the Community Reinvestment Act (access to capital) and the Americans with Disabilities Act, we see a constant battle for the majority-culture-dominated state and federal legislatures to pass retrograde action. Examples are:

  • Voter photo-ID laws (passed inGeorgiawhile simultaneously shutting down motor-vehicle offices in poor areas, preventing people from getting a photo ID)
  • Societal acceptance of the absolute failure of the majority of public schools that serve the poor
  • The subprime crisis, which created record gaps in household wealth between white households and Black and Latino households (a theft of wealth that is unprecedented, yet no major perpetrator is in prison)
  • College-educated people with disabilities having the highest unemployment rate

In practically all American organizations, the dominant culture is readily apparent. When I am invited to speak at a corporation that is just starting out in diversity management, I often create a presentation slide that has photos of the people listed as senior executives and/or on the board—disproportionately white men. The visual makes an impression with the audience every time. I make the point that there are probably no overt bigots, sexists or homophobes, but their culture produced a certain outcome that valued conformity over quality.

Unless you can tell me how white men are so magical that they’re superior to everyone else (and genetic research shows that there is no scientific rationale for “race”), then it’s impossible to think that the most talented people are running corporate America, the federal, state and local governments, religion and charity. The most basic cut—college education—shows that an equal number of men and women in the workforce have bachelor’s degrees. Women outpaced men in four-year degree achievement in the late 1980s. There is now an eight-point difference between four-year degree attainment between women and men, yet women have far fewer corporate positions of power (by any measurement) and still earn 23 percent less than men.

In corporate America, there are differences in diversity we can absolutely measure—race, gender and age—because that data is required to be collected by the federal government. We cannot make absolute measurement-driven comparisons of differences that are voluntarily disclosed, such as orientation and disability—but they are just as important in my mind. In the differences we can measure, we can see that there are discrepancies in talent development across gender and race, with the DiversityInc Top 50 companies having made far more progress than the average Fortune 500 company.

I find it impossible to believe that an organization can have optimum diversity of thought while maintaining segregated talent development.

But there is an opportunity for any organization wishing to develop diversity of thought as they ramp up diversity of those factors we can measure. White men are diverse too. But the dominant culture, regardless of who it is or where it is, is driven to value conformity. The whitest management group in the country has white men who have differences in their perspective that derive from their personal history—growing up poor, wealthy, rural, city, large family, single parent—whatever the differences, they drive a different way to approach problems and opportunities. Being nimble in the marketplace demands opening the aperture for ideas. The primary factors of diversity management—mentoring, resource groups, diversity councils—can be adapted for utilization with any company, but often we see only non-white people and/or women being called “diverse,” and “inclusion” ends up being a segregated channel for everyone who isn’t a white man to discuss among themselves. Big mistake.

I don’t think it’s possible to measure diversity of thought between disparate organizations. We can measure equitable talent development, supplier diversity, philanthropic spend, success of resource groups and mentoring, though—and that’s exactly what we do in the DiversityInc Top 50 process.

We can also have companies tell us about how they’ve harnessed diversity of thought—and that’s exactly what we’ve done with this issue of DiversityInc magazine. You can witness this live at our Innovation Fest! this September.

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1 Comment

  • Luke,

    I like your assertion that white men are diverse too. Yet, if such groups of men utilized that diversity, we would never had a need for Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity, etc. We left such groups alone for years, and they never changed their hiring strategy, promotion trends and the like. Now, I’d submit that various groups of white men and women have made changes in how they hire, think,and so on. But there’s still a significant number of white men, and white women, who believe that people of color are getting a pass. They seem to suggest that in the good ‘ol days (before such programs) everyone who got hired was the best possible person for the job. Really?

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