To Improve Diversity, Talking About Race Cannot Be Taboo

By Moses Frenck

Bob Moritz, PwC’s U.S. chairman and senior partner speaks with Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments.

For Bob Moritz, PwC’s U.S. chairman and senior partner, diversity is a paramount issue. He attributes the firm’s success to its initiatives addressing diversity, and he is a major proponent of driving conversations about race and diversity in the workplace and of having those discussions with other CEOs and corporate leaders.

As a result of the company’s efforts, the firm has been in the top five on the DiversityInc Top 50 for seven of the past eight years, moving up to No. 3 in 2015.

To further the conversation on race and diversity, Moritz last weekinvited Mellody Hobson, one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2015, and president of Ariel Investments, one of the largest Black-owned money management firms in the United States, to speak at PwC before a group of roughly 200 clients and partners and thousands more watching through a live webcast.

Hobson, whose TED Talk “Color Blind or Color Brave” has been viewed more than 1.3 million times, argues that speaking openly about race makes for better businesses and a better society.

“Talking about race is a conversation that’s difficult, at times uncomfortable, but the reality is, if we don’t talk about it we’ll never make the progress that’s necessary,” Moritz said in introducing Hobson. “Race is something that’s rarely talked about or, if talked about, talked about behind closed doors.”

Moritz said that while the United States as a nation is becoming more diverse, the same is not true in Corporate America.

“Thirty-seven percent of the United States identifies as minority, and the reality is, when you look at those statistics, compared to both corporate communities where these individual represent low, single-digit numbers, or more senior positions, senior management, CEOs or board members that’s when the numbers get extremely small embarrassingly small.

“In order to have these conversations we have to be bold, we have to be courageous, and we have to get into an uncomfortable position.”

Hobson said her earliest conversations about race started when she was young, with “tough conversations” with her mother about what she would face in the world and how she would be treated. “They won’t always treat you well,” she said her mother told her, and as a result has always had awareness about the different experiences faced by Blacks and whites in this country.

“This is one of those topics that makes people really, really, really uncomfortable,” she said, adding that many people told her not to do her Ted Talk about race, even those close to her and those whom she said had her best interests at heart.

“They told me that people would say I have everything. ‘She’s on the boards of companies, she’s married to George Lucas. What could she possibly experience’ Well, a lot of things, on a daily basis.”

Hobson said she is not angry about the way she and minorities are treated, but rather she feels sad. “When you’re angry, you’re probably not doing your best thinking,” she said. “I would encourage people to channel that energy to effect change that is positive.”

She also encouraged people in senior business roles and political positions “to set the expectations to have a hard conversation and still feel safe about it.”

Moritz asked Hobson how is that possible and if it is politically correct even to talk about race in the workplace, “because it’s a taboo-kind of topic.”

“I’m trying to make it not taboo,” Hobson responded. “I’m trying to demystify this topic. I’m trying to make it so we can all feel comfortable about having an uncomfortable conversation.”

Moritz asked Hobson what advice she has for elected officials, CEOs and other business leaders to go about doing that. “I think the train has left the station,” she responded. “This country is already changing. If you want to survive, this is not a question of the right thing to do. It’s a must do.”

Hobson said that includes holding people accountable, having chief diversity officers report directly to their CEOs, and ensuring that compensation of senior leaders is tied to having diverse teams. “It’s important to be calling people out in this issue.”

Moritz said there is much talk but little action in terms of actual diversity, and he asked Hobson about that disparity. “CEOs, politicians, they talk about it, they write about it in their annual reports, but the reality is that the actions aren’t coming to life at least as fast as society has changed. What’s the missing ingredient”

“Awareness,” Hobson said without hesitation. “If you open up an annual report and saw the board of directors was all white men, that you would question that.” She explained that while today many people would notice if a company’s entire board was composed of Black individuals, a board made up entirely of white men presently doesn’t strike many people as odd. She said having that awareness, that an all-white-male board is odd, is what will bring about change.

“It’s about making sure everyone is in the room,” she said, stressing that everyone, every race, every sexual orientation must be represented.

Reflecting on the talk with Hobson, Moritz later said that within PwC, he tries “to make sure we are having the necessary conversations and making changes to increase our firm’s diversity. It starts with creating a safe environment to have the harder, more uncomfortable conversations that lead to awareness. We must not congratulate ourselves for believing we’re color blind as Mellody explains, it’s about being color brave. We must be honest about the issues and their challenges, and we must be willing to have potentially hard discussions.”

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