Throughout my career as a Black, female lawyer, I faced racism and discrimination in the workplace. One incident that particularly stands out was when I was a senior corporate associate at a law firm. One partner at my firm, who was a Caucasian male, was the partner on my deal and refused to make eye contact with me or invite me to client meetings.
Typically, on a deal team, the senior associate serves as the “quarterback” and supervises the junior attorneys and subject matter experts on the team. It is also the senior associate who is the main contact who coordinates with the law firm partner on the deal. Instead, he ran all of his communications, instructions, and directives on the deal through the junior attorney, who was also a Caucasian male, and not through me.
At the end of the deal, this same partner even went on to attribute an accomplishment we achieved to the same junior attorney when I was the one actually responsible for the positive result. What’s even more egregious is the fact that he did this in front of the client.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time I encountered a situation where my work was undervalued; this was a microaggression that I had confronted many times. Addressing microaggressions in an organization is particularly difficult because a power dynamic usually accompanies the relationship, and it can be hard to prove. I made my experience with this partner known to the managing partner at the office, and I never had to work with that partner again. However, the damage was done, and those feelings of isolation and disconnect began to manifest.
Addressing Systemic Issues
Though the value of creating a more diverse workforce has been proven over and over again, we are still at the point where many businesses continue to present business cases on the need for diversity. And yet, the public profiles of many organizations appear very diverse and inclusive, including the law firm I worked at.
Further, many companies have committed to implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. They have taken a hard stance on addressing overt and apparent types of discrimination. They have spoken publicly about their policy of inclusion and celebrate culturally relevant days like Pride, Black History Month, or Women’s Equality Day.
However, these actions rarely address the systemic issues that prevent the creation of a truly inclusive workplace and don’t move the needle for DEI within the workplace. For those of us who experience everyday microaggressions, our frequent inability to speak up given the fear of negative career ramifications is compounded by a feeling of being alone in our encounters. In particular, women of color are most likely to face “othering” and microaggressions in the workforce.
A proper DEI strategy includes an approach to create inclusion that is apparent and reflected across all levels of the organization. It is a strategy that allows people to bring their whole selves to the organization and feel valued for their ideas and contribution. But oftentimes, current strategies only aim to increase the number of BIPOC within an organization but are not aimed at creating a culture of inclusion.
Nonetheless, at first glance, the data suggests that these limited initiatives are working. Diversity in the labor force is increasing as companies implement targeted recruitment strategies and initiatives. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women are expected to make up 47.2% of the labor force by 2024. In addition, the labor force is expected to see rapid growth in communities of color, with Hispanic communities growing the fastest.
The increased presence of diverse groups seems to reinforce a story of inclusion and equity. However, as we start to examine the reality behind these numbers, we see a different story.
In the world’s top 500 companies, only 10% of senior executives are women and 16% are racially diverse. Historically, these groups have not been promoted to C-suite positions. As it turns out, though, business diversity is stratified with BIPOC and women found on the lower rungs of the pyramid.
However, these systems are being challenged and changed publicly, as well as within organizations.
On Aug. 6, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission approved Nasdaq’s proposal to increase diversity for over 3,000 companies listed on the exchange. The new policy requires any company listed on Nasdaq to show within a year that it has “at least one woman on their board of directors, along with one person from a racial minority or who identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer.” Otherwise, the organization will become delisted.
As such policies and public sentiment change to support diversity, we need to meet this change by addressing the systemic inequalities within organizations. So, how can organizations create an environment that fosters growth and leadership for everyone?
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Creating an Inclusive Workplace
DEI work is enduring when companies can understand and consider the lived realities of various groups. When assessing your employees’ experience in the workplace, make sure you’re also focusing on the intersectionality of various identities within your organization.
Below are some recommendations for companies to meaningfully develop diverse, equitable, and inclusive work environments:
Recognize the emotional and real toll carried by BIPOC. In addition to fulfilling the formal requirements of their position, BIPOC are also often called to lead diversity events and educate their coworkers on DEI within the company. In fact, in our recent survey we conducted with Prospanica, a national association of Hispanic MBAs and business professionals, we found that more than 6 in 10 Latinx employees indicated that they felt the burden of teaching or explaining DEI issues to their colleagues.
Training and education should not be the burden of marginalized workers but should be supported by senior leadership and diversity and inclusion experts. Create networks that are aimed at supporting these conversations led by experts, internally or externally, who are compensated for their time.
Understand the role of intersectionality. Many individuals carry multiple identities that influence their lived reality. The day-to-day reality of a Black woman is different than that of a Black trans woman or a Black woman with a disability. Understanding the multifaceted nature of employees’ identities will give you insights into their lives and position the organization to better understand the specific needs of their employees.
Recognize your employees’ contribution to creating an inclusive organizational culture. DEI should be a core value in every organization and as such be monitored, evaluated, and given performance goals as any other metric of value. Companies with diverse management generate on average 38% more revenue than those without.
Reduce bias in performance management. Establish clear and objective expectations for all employees based on tangible goals. This practice will reduce the chances of any unintended bias coming into the evaluation process. In addition, seeking out multiple sources of feedback on an employee’s performance will counteract any unconscious bias that may unfairly affect evaluations for marginalized groups.
Create transparency in pay. One of the biggest trends in DEI is the need for transparency in compensation. Employees are more likely to stay at an organization where they feel that their ideas, time, and commitment are valued, and compensated, fairly. Fair compensation also increases employee health and wellbeing as it creates a sense of appreciation and underlines the company’s commitment to promoting people for their ideas.
Engage DEI consultants and industry experts. DEI experts can identify hidden or systemic barriers that prevent an inclusive and equitable environment by conducting workplace equity audits and helping companies really take the time to diagnose these issues before jumping straight to training. When armed with data, companies can begin tackling the issues and work towards building long-term sustainable and measurable goals.