Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Business of Diversity

When you read the phrase “managing diversity,” you might imagine the kind of sensitivity training workshop that was – rightly – a common object of ridicule in the 1980s and 90s, the kind where everyone is encouraged to appreciate each other’s differences and avoid making racist or sexist comments. In our conversation on Lincoln Avenue, Luke Visconti, one of the founders of DiversityInc, made clear that his approach to creating more diverse workplaces isn’t like that.

DiversityInc publishes a magazine and manages a website that profiles businesses that have succeeded in hiring, keeping, and promoting women, people of color, and gays and lesbians. He told me, as well as the audience at YSU’s annual Diversity Leadership dinner, that the key to creating productively diverse workplaces isn’t about eliminating overt discrimination but about addressing the obstacles that too often keep talented workers from being promoted. Yes, those barriers can be a matter of attitudes, though Visconti insists that he doesn’t think that most employers or colleagues are racists or sexist (though he acknowledges the persistence of homophobia). They simply aren’t aware of how their own habits and assumptions might exclude others. As he explains in tonight’s interview, companies often benefit from recognizing patterns of exclusion and from some basic, often common-sense advice, such as don’t penalize women for taking maternity leave, or simply making your company’s commitment to diversity a strong theme in how you present your business.

Visconti’s positive approach makes sense. We can’t promote real equal opportunity on the basis of guilt; we have to make clear how discrimination harms not only those who are its objects but also those who enact it. And I’m always happy to see discussions of diversity being led by straight, white men – those who, it would seem, have the least to gain from it. In his blog, Ask the White Guy, Visconti encourages people to ask questions that they might not be comfortable either asking within their own companies or to someone who is different from themselves.

All of this seems like a move in a good direction. My diversity skepticism kicked in, though, when Visconti explained his business model, which uses statistical analysis to show companies how well (or poorly) they’re doing and offers consulting services and information to help them do better. That feels a little like a gotcha game. No doubt, companies and organizations need help. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea that promoting diversity has itself become a way to make money. I hope that DiversityInc and other companies like it, with the help of all of my colleagues who teach about diversity in schools and colleges and who organize community-based efforts to fight inequality, will succeed enough that they create their own obsolescence.

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