Changing the Conversation about Diversity in the Workplace
By Thao Nguyen
Recently, I’ve been invited to roundtables and breakouts about diversity in the workplace. The conversations focused on hiring and retaining employees from different minority groups, particularly women. I work in STEM, so the number of female coworkers I have is pretty low compared to the number of male coworkers. In about 70% of my weekly meetings, I’m the only female in the room. None of this is a complaint - I’ve never felt discriminated against or disregarded just because all of the people in the room with me were men. I’ve never been made to feel like my input was any lesser or that I had less power than the other people in my meetings; I was always made to feel like an equal. But I do understand why we need more women - and other minority groups - in the workplace, especially in STEM. However, I think the approach that a lot of people and companies are taking isn’t conducive to this goal.
As idealistic as it is to want diversity and inclusion right away, it just isn’t plausible when things aren’t happening at the social and developmental level to promote this.
If we continue to repeat the message that there is something that’s difficult for girls or people of color to do, there can only be two outcomes. They will either be incensed to try harder to prove everyone wrong or that message will be internalized and they won’t try at all. For example, instead of saying over and over how hard it is for girls to get into STEM, we should be promoting programs like Girls Who Code that encourage and create opportunities for girls to build a foundation early on in science, technology, engineering, and math. Don’t plant the seed that a certain group is already at an disadvantage. Instead, put them on an even playing field with their counterparts. This is also true of encouraging boys to consider more “feminine” careers or supporting programs that bring STEM to disadvantaged schools and neighborhoods.
If we truly want to create equal opportunities, we have to start at an earlier stage. It can’t just be an issue when building a candidate pool for interviewing, because that pool isn’t going to exist. Companies can set things up like the Rooney Rule that require at least one minority candidate be interviewed for each open requisition, but that won’t be effective if a candidate from the majority group is more qualified for the position. Similarly, having requirements for the number of diversity hires and employees feels like a cover-up for the idea that companies are only hiring minorities out of a sense of obligation and fear or backlash. You may be making it easier for minority candidates to get in the door, but it doesn’t make the opportunity more equal. The only way that is to develop and encourage skills across the board from an early age.
By exposing all children to the same opportunities and areas of interest, we’re giving them the tools to make decisions about what they want to do. It’s not denying the existence of the disadvantages that exist, but helping to get rid of them. Conversely, when we expose them to the belief that something is more difficult for one group that the other, we build more barriers to free-thinking on both sides. It’s very likely that those who are told that they are disadvantaged will become discouraged and seek “easier” alternatives. It’s also likely that those who are told they are advantaged internalize feelings of superiority and entitlement. And sure, that isn’t always the case, but why take that risk? Rather than continuing and repeating the message that white men have it easy, we should be talking about how we can eradicate the idea that something will be more difficult for someone just because of their gender and race. It’s not a secret that there are a lot of systems and “old-fashioned” beliefs in place that lead to biases, but if we can foster a new way of thinking, with time, we can come closer to having a diverse workplace come about organically - it won’t have to be an ideal or a conscious decision we have to make, it will be a reality that just comes about naturally. Changing the conversation and promoting more inclusive programs in schools obviously won’t solve all of the challenges to having a diverse workplace, but it will definitely be more effective than reiterating discouraging statistics.