6 Ways to Create an Empowering Environment

5 minute read

Rajshree Agarwal is the director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and a Cato adjunct scholar.

One of the perks of my job in higher education is the daily interaction I get with the rising generation, which keeps me alert. During a recent panel discussion set up for 110 interns at a Maryland company, a young college student tested my readiness with a politically charged question: “What advice would you give to a woman starting her career?

My answer might have caught some in the audience off guard, so I was heartened by the applause that followed. “Don’t focus on your gender,” I told her. “Focus on your abilities.”

That’s what I tell my own daughters, and that’s the mindset I adopted for myself 25 years ago. I worked hard, delivered value and never let anyone — including myself — make gender an issue. The approach has worked well so far.

My advice does not mean that business schools, corporate boards and executive suites should ignore the need for gender equity. The Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets, which I direct at the University of Maryland, has its own summer residency program to help prepare high school girls for leadership roles.

The problem occurs when well-intentioned people use demographic categories as shortcuts to indicate diversity.

Gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status can help operationalize an elusive construct. But natural variance within groups means that organizations can check all the right boxes without achieving authentic diversity.

Former presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina are both women, for example, but they revealed wide gaps in their thinking on the campaign trail.

What really matters within communities is viewpoint diversity. This is what drives creative tension, cross-cultural understanding and the ability to see problems from multiple perspectives — the desired outcomes of diversity.

Everything else is just an approximation or substitute. Unfortunately, viewpoint diversity is the one thing that many champions of tolerance can’t tolerate.

During a recent exchange with a longtime friend who has embraced her teenage child’s decision to transition genders, the teen affectionately jabbed at my friend about the safety pin she wore. “She is all for safe spaces,” the teen said, “so long as you agree with her views.”

These were words of the wise, and they apply just as much to voters who might wear red baseball caps or “Deplorable” T-shirts as symbols of their ideology. Embracing male and female, black and white, gay and straight, etc., isn’t really hard as long as our neighbors think like us, talk like us and vote like us.

People on the right and left of the political spectrum fall into this trap, as demonstrated in a 2015 study from Stanford and Princeton Universities. The researchers took otherwise identical resumes and swapped one word, so applicants appeared alternately as chapter presidents of the Young Democrats or Young Republicans.

The resulting discrimination cut both ways. “Partisans discriminate against opposing partisans, doing so to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race,” the study concludes.

People on the right may cheer quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he leads their team to the Super Bowl. But when he kneels during the National Anthem, they turn off their televisions. Similarly, they might change the channel when news sources challenge their thinking on climate change, immigration or law enforcement.

Organizers on the left, meanwhile, invited activists of all colors and creeds to the Women’s March on Washington following President Trump’s inauguration. But when a sponsor expressed pro-life views, they removed the group from their list.

Engaging in civil discourse with people who disagree with us requires patience and practice. Following are six guidelines to foster voice, an environment where community members can speak up and be heard.

Sell, don’t compel: Voters weary of identity politics revolted in the recent election, and something similar can happen in business. Regulating or “shaming” companies to increase diversity can produce cynicism, backlash and unintended consequences. Things work better when firms reform because they want to, rather than have to.

Listen to facts: My status as an endowed professor creates a hierarchy that can suppress graduate students from pushing back in brainstorming conversations about research. So when I meet new PhD candidates seeking a faculty adviser, we start by establishing ground rules. “We will focus on what is right, not who is right,” I tell them. “When we disagree, we will let facts be the final arbiter.”

Dampen the echo: Instead of surrounding ourselves with social media friends and news sources who confirm and amplify our biases, we should mix up our diet. Even if it raises our blood pressure, we should visit sites and join groups that challenge our thinking.

Keep talking: The easiest thing to do when someone offends us is to cut them out of our lives. But we miss opportunities to grow when we rush to boycott individuals and groups that disagree with us.

Hush the name-calling: Additional opportunities are lost when we label our opponents as evil, uncaring or intellectually inferior. Shifting arguments into moral terms shuts down discourse.

Communicate strength: People must protect themselves from harm, but adopting a victim mentality can hinder a person’s ability to fight back and heal. The late Mormon leader Brigham Young suggests a different approach: “He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool.”

Programs and initiatives that foster enterprise within underrepresented groups have merit. But viewpoint diversity — too often the missing seat in the discussion — belongs at the head of the table.

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