Corporate diversity programs have been big news in recent years, as companies ranging from Uber to Google institute these initiatives. Most recently, Uber launched its first diversity report in March 2017. The move came after claims earlier in the year that the company culture promoted sexism and harassment. Uber responded with a stated commitment to diversity and extensive reporting as a first step to show that diversity is important to them.
Many businesses stress research and fact-finding in their corporate diversity reports. This has led to a debate about approaches to issues of equal opportunity. Is research and definition of the problem a strong first step, or should organizations be more focused on taking direct action?
Companies now frequently offer incentives for diverse hiring practices as well as training to target bias against underrepresented groups. However, there is some question about whether these efforts will encourage the hiring or retention of diverse groups, given that leadership positions at many companies still lack diversity.
In February 2017, engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post outlining her experiences with gender discrimination while she worked at Uber. Fowler claimed that when she and other women came forward with complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace, she was blamed and threatened to be let go.
Fowler’s story led to more women coming forward. And, it led to a discussion about harassment in the workplace.
Uber promptly responded with statements that Fowler’s experience went against what the company stood for and promised an investigation.
In March 2017, the company released its first diversity report, outlining what Fowler had already suggested about a largely male-oriented culture at the organization.
According to the report,
Uber hired former attorney general Eric Holder to spearhead an investigation into harassment in the workplace. The company has also taken additional steps to show its commitment to diversity.
Google emphasizes transparency as one of the best practices in achieving workforce diversity. The company has a website detailing its diversity initiatives as well as the current numbers reflecting its efforts.
Google stresses that 24% of leadership positions in 2015 were held by women, an increase of 2% over the year before. The site also notes that 4% and 5% of new hires in 2015 were black and Hispanic, respectively.
In addition, the Google diversity program includes:
Google may be instituting some diversity programs to capitalize on PR possibilities, but they could also be addressing some of the ways in which the company can grow in the future. After all, there may be a financial benefit from instating such programs. Thomson Reuters reported that companies with diversity programs have happier customers and do better financially when compared with companies that do not show a commitment to diversity.
Facebook’s workforce has levels of diversity that are similar to those of Google and Uber.
In July 2016, 1% of the U.S. tech team members at the company were black, and 3% Hispanic. And, about 17% of the company’s global tech employees were women – a 1% increase over 2015.
Like Uber and Google, Facebook gathers data about its workers in order to target areas where equal opportunity may be a concern. It addresses these areas through pilot programs, which test different initiatives to allow for tweaks.
One program being tested this way is the Diverse Slate Approach. This approach mandates that hiring managers interview a minimum of one person from an underrepresented group for each role they are trying to fill.
Interestingly, this came about due to a failed pilot program at Facebook. Previously, the company had tried to encourage the hiring of underrepresented talent by offering initiatives to recruiters for bringing forward female, Hispanic or black engineer candidates. However, the pilot project revealed that hiring managers would sometimes turn down these candidates, opting to favour criteria such as a candidate’s alma mater.
Another initiative is Facebook University, which allows college students from underrepresented groups to train with the company during summers. Facebook hopes to hire from this pool of candidates in the future. Some students from the program have already become full-time employees. In 2015, the company also started offering online employee training in unconscious bias to further mitigate discrimination in the workplace.
The creation of such initiatives shows a shift in the way companies think about the relationship between diversity and business.
Overall, there has been a renewed push in the United States to discuss equal opportunity and take steps to address it.
In September 2016, Thomson Reuters introduced its Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Index, an examination of the diversity practices of 5,000 companies. This move is one indication of the increasing interest in this issue within the business community.
The publishing of diversity numbers appears to be working. Many companies, and tech companies in particular, have become more transparent about gathering and revealing information about the makeup of their workplaces.
This represents a significant shift since CNN reporters noted in 2011 that they had trouble getting tech companies to reveal these numbers. Once Google published its numbers, Apple, Yahoo, and other companies also released theirs. Revealing the problems helps ensure that they don’t stay hidden.
Companies such as Uber and Google also create employee resource groups and encourage training as well as an open discussion of diversity. These efforts integrate equal opportunity discussions into company cultures. It also makes it easier for employees to come forward if they feel they are facing discrimination.
Some companies are looking beyond employee and leadership diversity to create truly inclusive cultures. Organizations are donating money to political and advocacy groups to provide funding and support for underrepresented groups, for example, and some seek suppliers from varied sources. Notably, Procter & Gamble has a staff and supplier diversity program that offers compensation for successful participation in the initiative.
Many large companies are taking comprehensive approaches with varied and wide-ranging programs. They’re gathering information, encouraging new hiring practices, and contributing to programs that motivate students from underrepresented backgrounds to enter tech fields. Such efforts, which often include large teams and their leaders, suggest that many organizations are serious about this topic and taking steps that have the potential of making a real impact.
Organizations with effective strategies are often including employees in their discussions of diversity. Affinity groups and online training get employees involved rather than just asking them to read corporate statements about unconscious bias.
One large tech company that has made significant progress is Cisco Systems. It formed a Global Inclusion and Diversity Council in 2007, and has sponsored 12 employee resource groups “to improve the skills, networking capabilities, and career opportunities for particular groups.” Today, five out of 13 people on the executive leadership team are women, and the company ranks ninth on the Thomson Reuters D&I Index.
Full engagement of teams at all levels of an organization has the potential to bring real changes, both to workplace culture and to the company’s success. An individual from a minority group can speak to changes a specific company may need to take to encourage feelings of inclusion. Workers from different backgrounds can offer insights into how customers from similar backgrounds might experience a product or service the company is offering, thus potentially ensuring that companies appeal to a diverse range of customers.
Mattel, for example, asked its African-American employee resource group for advice and insights during development of a new doll that would be targeted to girls in that community; it became one of their top selling products for a minority market.
Many companies are also offering unconscious bias training, which is important given how deep-rooted bias can be. While managers and workers may believe that they are unbiased, they may have unspoken beliefs that can permeate a workplace.
Facebook’s bias training includes online videos that depict discussions of bias. Trainees may recognize themselves in some of the comments and assumptions they hear, allowing them to identify possible areas of unconscious bias and motivating them to take action.
With leadership positions at companies still largely not diversified, one could argue that companies are creating diversity programs primarily as PR moves rather than sincere attempts to make measurable changes in the way business is run. With Uber releasing its diversity report, for example, will women in that company experience fewer instances of harassment?
The fact that companies are still not diversified could present a challenge for workers from other underrepresented groups as well. According to a study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the number of workers from a specific group can be a gauge as to how effective a diversity program is. If there are very few workers from a specific group, programs stressing differences are likely to be ineffective.
However, if there are many workers from the same group at a company, but they are underrepresented overall (for example, women, who make up over 58% of the civilian workforce but might total only 30% of a company’s employee base), programs stressing equality in the workplace for all groups may be more effective. Despite this kind of research, many diversity efforts do not address the different needs of various groups within an organization.
The very discussion of diversity can be troubling for some groups. Many companies focus on specific diversity initiatives, such as expanding racial diversity in the workplace or bringing women into leadership and tech positions. However, true inclusivity must also address the needs of LGBT workers, the effects of ageism, and other relevant issues such as immigrant workers.
Real inclusion must also take into account the perspectives of employees around the world and the generation of younger workers that is increasingly prominent in the global workplace.
The challenges that women experience at headquarters, for instance, might be quite different from those experienced by women in other countries. While women at headquarters may struggle with access to leadership roles, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment, women in emerging market locations may be more concerned with safe transit for getting to company facilities, social stigma against working mothers with young children, or dual track hiring policies that channel most women into non-professional administrative or temporary manufacturing worker roles.
As companies launch diversity initiatives, there is the potential that some groups will feel excluded by the very programs intended to include them. Even when publishing diversity reports, companies tend to focus only on a few different types of groups. People with varying personalities, immigrant workers, employees in subsidiary locations, and others may not be included overtly in the discussions.
Another troubling piece of information is the question of whether ineffective diversity efforts can do more harm than good. According to professor Alexandra Kalev of Tel Aviv University, some research shows that companies with mandatory diversity training can actually experience lowered management diversity, an issue which clearly needs more study. Kalev points out that voluntary programs in which management took an active part saw much better results and an 80% average participation rate.
This article was first published on June 7, 2017. It was updated on March 14, 2019.