Ebonye Gussine Wilkins challenges us to do the work. Gussine Wilkins goes beyond the data that may have us enjoy a false sense of progress and unpacks what the numbers mean when parsed by marginalized groups and their lived experiences. She goes deeper still and offers historical perspectives that further explain racial divisions and spells out why data without insight tells a partial story. Her premise focuses on knowledge, education, insight, and wisdom as necessary, yet missing, elements to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
Achieving an inclusive workplace is an evergreen goal. It’s seen as the penultimate step to becoming a perfect company, organization, or nonprofit. We’re always just a few initiatives away from reaching the organizational North Star of inclusivity — where folks can work together harmoniously, regardless of background. Entering an office and collaborating with folks of every shade and creed at every turn; it sounds right. It even feels right. This is the lofty marker of success, beyond dazzling annual reports and healthy profit margins. It’s something that makes an organization seem even more special, because inclusivity goes above and beyond what everyone else is doing. “We’re doing the right thing,” and every permutation thereof, makes folks feel better about small measures taken. “It’s a step in the right direction,” we tell ourselves. “Starting the conversation,” is the first, logical move that seems within our reach.
These are the loud, spoken statements we are not afraid to make. But the elusive question, “Are we doing enough?” is the one we ask privately and quietly when reflecting on our progress toward workplace inclusivity. We ask this question among ourselves and feel somewhat reassured that no one else quite knows the answer either. However, bigger questions remain: Why are the achievements of diversity, equity, and inclusion always somewhere in the future? Why are they always “bonuses” beyond profitability, sustainability, and achievement of an organization’s mission?
If we know that having knowledge and education are key to achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion, why do we hit the reset button periodically and begin all over again with yet another diversity initiative?
It’s because what we’re doing isn’t working. We’re neither retaining knowledge nor applying it in a way that transforms the ways we interact with each other. We’re not bringing inclusive ideals into the workplace. We are compartmentalizing what we believe are relevant parts of work and business, and anything else is a plus. We’ve adopted, and heavily relied on, an attitude of, “Well, that’s a nice goal — if you can manage it.” We’re simply not doing the work but are somehow still expecting it to get done.
If we were setting any other goal in business, we’d prudently ask if it’s S.M.A.R.T — specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-bound. But we haven’t meaningfully applied this inquiry in our approach to increasing diversity. What specifically are we making more inclusive? How do we know when we have met our goal? How do we get there, and does it make sense in terms of what we’re doing within our organization? How long do we have to make inclusivity a reality?
Thinking about diversity this way can be uncomfortable. Data is easier to deal with because it feels impartial. We’re used to putting numbers to nearly everything, because that’s how we can “prove” that we are making a difference. But data without insight tells an incomplete story — one that is prone to manipulation and one that can conflate significant indicators of true trends. For example, a common statistic, which fluctuates a bit from year to year, is that women make 79 cents for every dollar that a white, non-Hispanic man makes.1 But when we disaggregate the data by race, we find that Black women make 62 cents per dollar and Latinx women make 54 cents per dollar.2 The numbers for Native American women, Alaskan Native women, and disabled people aren’t very encouraging either, hovering around the 60 cents per dollar mark. Even data showing that Asian women are making 89 cents to 91 cents per dollar is misleading; when disaggregated by ethnicity, there is a staggeringly wide range among Asian women.3 The quantitative data tells one story, but the qualitative data tells another. When we combine the two to give us a clearer picture of the kinds of disparities that hinder achieving workplace equity and inclusion, the results are often discouraging — if not embarrassing.
Outside of the wage gap, there are multiple stories to be told about how far we are from creating more inclusive workplaces, and many of them are backed by data. In a 2019 brief by the Center for Talent Innovation,4 the picture painted is quite common:
The majority of Black professionals have experienced racial prejudice at work. Unsurprisingly, this cohort is nearly four times as likely to encounter prejudice as White professionals are (58% vs. 15%) — but we also find a marked difference when we compare Black to Latinx (41%) and Asian (38%) professionals. In our sample, Black professionals working in the West and Midwest are even more likely, which could be due to lower Black population levels in those regions.5 Without as much exposure to Black people, colleagues have fewer opportunities to correct for stereotypes they’ve picked up.
This isn’t surprising. Typically, people associate only with folks who they know. A 2014 report by the Public Religion Research Institute6 pointed out that in the study’s scenario, the average white person in the US has only one Black friend, while the average Black person has eight white friends. While the report noted that the white population is much larger in the US than the Black population, proximity plays a factor. If we dig deeper and consider the enduring history of redlining,7 which made it exceedingly difficult for non-whites to obtain mortgages to purchase homes in certain areas, it is no wonder people are unfamiliar with each other. If people don’t live near each other, socialize in the same places, or even attend the same schools, how many opportunities are there for folks to get to know each other?
That’s one example of where and how these disparities appear. We know that some differences in how our lives unfold run across racial lines. But there are other factors, too. Many cultures have binary perceptions of gender identity and prescriptive ideas of what gender, sexual orientation, and gender expression should be, which affect how people are treated inside and outside of work. Worldwide, people with disabilities are deemed incapable of participating in everyday activities and are treated according to that perception. Many of us grow up in environments where most buildings are inaccessible to people with disabilities.8 Often, even children don’t use the same playgrounds as kids with some disabilities because designs don’t accommodate the needs of all children. These are things that we already implicitly know. We’ve been socialized into and immersed in non-inclusive, prescriptive norms and expectations that many don’t notice — despite the fact that they’ve always been there.
If workplace change is constructed with knowledge and education around cultural and other differences, then why does the transfer of leadership, the departure of key individuals, and the end of a diversity initiative mean that we start from scratch yet again?
Education around differences is never enough. We need the wisdom that comes from applying that knowledge appropriately. We must learn to understand the responsibility we have to each other and take the actions necessary to create the inclusive workplaces we’re seeking. There is too much at stake for us to assume that the problem is not ours to hold.
A quaint adage suggests that learning that tomatoes are fruit is knowledge, but not putting tomatoes in fruit salad is wisdom. Far too many of us have memorized the right things to say, in a particular order, to satisfy the optics of doing more — but without doing much at all. Slacktivism9 fails us at every level. Typically, nothing gets done until compliance with the law is an issue. That’s usually the nudge — or sudden shove, depending on your perspective — that gets companies and other organizations to start making changes.
Any action at all is usually triggered by new laws mandating change, internal pressure from staff, or outside demands from a public misstep. These prompts force us, with reluctance, to address matters that are typically tabled — but, usually, only when ignoring them is no longer an option.
When this happens, many will say that the organization’s or company’s culture change must come “from the top.” Oftentimes, leadership will seek out workplace diversity training and staff members become the main participants. It’s an outwardly palatable, knee-jerk reaction that offers good optics but ultimately falls short. Some of the staff in attendance at these trainings could lead comparable workshops with their eyes closed. The rest either resent being there at all — because it isn’t a priority in their minds — or have been to so many similar trainings that they know just enough to fly under the radar of accountability.
We know that we could do better. We also know that we have a handy, reliable list of mission-driven priorities that allow us to safely kick the can down the road until the next internal or public relations crisis emerges.
Even when responses to diversity, equity, and inclusion disparities are obligatory, we’re still missing the mark. Many diversity initiatives focus primarily on race. Measures taken usually lead to temporarily addressing race and ethnicity among staff, management, and board members. Occasionally, a binary perspective of gender is also considered. Usually, the folks who are left out are disabled, non-binary, trans, have certain religious beliefs, work above or below arbitrary age thresholds, or are otherwise part of marginalized groups across many social cleavages. How diverse can an organization be if multiple facets of inclusion are left out? If we’re focusing on knowledge and education to make the changes required to be more inclusive, which pieces are we missing?
Truth is, we have most of the pieces. We’re not applying the knowledge that we have, which is why we’re missing the big picture.
Let’s consider the scenario of business and how we navigate employment. We don’t all show up for work in the same ways. When beginning a typical workday, some are thinking about the investors, the competitors, or the revenue for the current and previous quarters. Others may be thinking about caregiving duties — for adults and children of any age — while also managing the week’s workload. Some may be preoccupied with genocide or state-sanctioned violence against folks who share their background and are also worried about making next month’s rent. Others are reminded that climbing out of poverty or earning living wages can push them over the income threshold that allows them to keep their healthcare insurance or affordable alternatives. Truthfully, many people are thinking about all these things concurrently. These scenarios may seem hypothetical, but hundreds of millions of workers face these realities, and more, daily — with little reprieve.
Every day, whether or not we acknowledge it, a substantial number of our white-collar colleagues and peers are juggling competing demands from their personal lives, while being pushed to answer emails faster, attend meetings with cameras on, and make sure that deadlines are not missed. Comparable requests are made of our blue-collar peers. Every single one of these people is expected to continue to show up and perform as if these life factors do not exist. Without their needs considered, we’re not making room for them — during the workday or throughout a work project. For example, someone who is facing eviction — and who also attended a vigil the night before for a friend slain by the police — will not show up to work the same way as someone who has a financial safety net, affordable and reliable childcare, and has experienced only a few inconvenient — but not nearly fatal — traffic stops. Yet, from an organizational and work perspective, we expect all employees to arrive and perform in similar ways. We don’t concern ourselves with what is happening outside of work even though it directly affects how people fare on the job.
Even with similar expectations for overall performance, regardless of the type of job or position on the organizational chart, the representation of different groups at various organizational levels falls in familiar and predictable ways. A 2020 study notes:10
At the support staff and operations level, 64% of employees are white, 12% are Black, 10% are Hispanic, 8% are Asian or Pacific Islander, and 6% are other races. The share of positions held by Caucasians increases with each upward wrung [sic] of the ladder. By the executive level, 85% of positions are held by white employees. Black and Hispanic employees make up just 2% and 3% of these positions, respectively.
This already grim reality gets worse. Seventy-nine percent of employed workers are of so-called prime age (aged 25–54). Yet, only 40% of disabled individuals of prime working age are employed.11 So, even when we think we’re working with a diverse set of colleagues, often we’re neither considering nor working with disabled people. Many disabled people are quite capable of working but they just aren’t being employed or considered for employment. For years, people with disabilities have been left out of the workforce — one reason being because they weren’t offered or given reasonable accommodations, such as being allowed to work remotely.12
For a long time, disabled folks have been told that remote work wasn’t possible. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adapt to unavoidable circumstances — including lockdowns and mandatory stay-at-home orders — and make accommodations for people with caregiving obligations and for disabled workers. But the lessons we’ve learned in equity seem short-lived. Even when adaptations to the COVID-19 pandemic proved that remote work is often viable,13 many newer job postings — listed as “remote” — come with the remark that location-independent, flexible options end once the pandemic is over. Clearly, we have the knowledge that we can do better for prospects and current staff, but we make a different choice. We risk losing the small strides made toward greater inclusivity by reversing decisions toward equity simply because of mixed feelings about the potential implications of realizing a more accommodating workforce.
The bottom line: we cannot have diversity without both equity and inclusion. When talking about diversity, equity, inclusion — DEI — we can’t decide to focus on just one of the letters. The entire effort falls apart without careful attention paid to all three facets. We have the knowledge to achieve the results we want for our companies and organizations. We don’t always have — or want — the wisdom to make it work.
To earn that wisdom, we have to understand the people who make up an organization, better assess the applicant pools we source from, accept what we don’t know, and seek answers in the right places. None of these is a checklist item. There is no scenario where the work is “done.” It must be a persistent and consistent commitment to meaningful action and accountability to put us on the path toward building a more inclusive workplace.
Creating a compassionate and productive work environment requires more than just having the right people in-house or bringing in the best consultants. We must remember that every person we interact with is a whole person, not just a tool or a means for bigger profits or “intellectual bragging rights.”14
Companies and organizations of all sizes must understand the following about their employees and consultants:
People need to show up as their full selves. No person should be required, implicitly or explicitly, to just focus on work for the sake of work. Paying a person for labor is not a reason for forgetting there is a real person behind that work.
People may not complete tasks the same way, but it doesn’t mean they won’t achieve great results. Whether work style differences stem from neurodivergence among colleagues, invisible or readily apparent disabilities, or alternate schedules and remote work, the work can and will get done with supportive flexibility.
People’s need for boundaries between their work life and their personal life is not optional. Respecting boundaries goes a long way, especially when microaggressions and non-inclusive company culture go unchecked. Many people feel forced to accept hostile and demeaning treatment simply to keep their jobs because past experiences have shown that speaking up improves nothing for them.
Company and organizational culture can be examined and addressed in a few ways:
Focus on the values, not just the mission. Ask honestly, does your workplace value who people are and not just what they can offer professionally?
Redefine what “professional” means in your workplace. Do you really mean manner of dress, general appearance, years of experience, or a formal education? Or does being professional mean being reliable, trustworthy, compassionate, and firm but thoughtful?
Create a culture of accountability. What happens when we fall short? How do we assess what has happened and how do we address our mistakes, visible or not?
Not only do we have to reexamine what diversity, equity, and inclusion mean, we also must honestly think about what they would look like within our organizations and companies.
We have received education on what inclusion means, but how does that show up at work? Do we have adequate buffers for deadlines, or are we pressuring folks to be “eleventh-hour heroes” because we value some employees’ time more than others? Are we giving our employees and consultants the tools and resources they need to set them up for success? Have we acknowledged that some new ideas might be scary and untested but that they could be fruitful for learning and growing? Have we empowered and supported our employees so that they can lead the way for new initiatives?
The answers to these questions will differ according to the scenario. When you have created space for individuals — of varying backgrounds, experiences, and education — to work with your organization, the support required for each won’t be the same. If an organization has never been led by a disabled person of color, for example, the support that person needs will be different than what previous leaders needed.
When underrepresented individuals are placed in environments where they have traditionally been underserved and overlooked, they are bringing with them every lived experience — including negative work interactions. If the structures in place have supported leaders only from overrepresented groups, there will be persistent obstacles. If you happen to be part of the overrepresented groups, those impediments may not be obvious or visible to you, making your awareness of other people’s experiences critical. Diversity, equity, and inclusion require that everyone, especially underrepresented individuals, be given what they need to do their best work and thrive.
Advancing an inclusive workplace with working knowledge of our differences is within our reach. In this moment, we are uniquely positioned to bring forth levels of meaningful inclusion that have not yet been achieved on a large scale. We must embrace an ongoing commitment to learning about each other and to leveraging technology to create a thriving work environment for all. The work we must do to make that a reality begins right now.
1“Quantifying America’s Gender Wage Gap by Race/Ethnicity.” National Partnership for Women & Families, September 2020.
2Bleiweis, Robin. “Quick Facts About the Gender Wage Gap.” Center for American Progress, 24 March 2020.
3“Asian American and Pacific Islander Women and the Wage Gap.” National Partnership for Women & Families, February 2020.
4“Being Black in Corporate America: An Intersectional Exploration.” Center for Talent Innovation, 2019.
5“Population Distribution by Race/Ethnicity.” Kaiser Family Foundation, accessed 23 October 2019.
6Ingraham, Christopher. “Three Quarters of Whites Don’t Have Any Non-White Friends.” The Washington Post, 25 August 2014.
7Gross, Terry. “A ‘Forgotten History’ of How the US Government Segregated America.” Fresh Air, National Public Radio (NPR), 3 May 2017.
8Berg, Nate. “The ADA Passed 30 Years Ago. Why Are Cities Still Horribly Designed for People with Disabilities?” Fast Company, 23 July 2020.
9See Wikipedia’s “Slacktivism.”
10Stevens, Pippa. “Companies Are Making Bold Promises About Greater Diversity, But There’s a Long Way to Go.” CNBC, 11 June 2020.
11Ross, Martha, and Nicole Bateman. “Only Four Out of Ten Working-Age Adults with Disabilities Are Employed.” Brookings, 25 July 2018.
12Campoamor, Danielle. “Disabled People React to Coronavirus Work from Home Accommodations.” Teen Vogue, 24 March 2020.
13Geller, Jen. “Remote Work Will Be a Legacy of Pandemic; Job Losses May Not Be Over, Survey Finds.” CNBC, 3 June 2020.
14Most companies, especially those that earn a lot of revenue with intellectual property (IP), require employees to relinquish their rights to IP or share them with the organization. Those can be copyrights, trademarks, patents, trade secrets (the ownership or rights to something created by the employee that often becomes the property of the company, even when crediting the employee). This IP becomes “bragging rights” in the business areas of those companies.