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We Need to Talk About Dog-Whistle Diversity

8 minute read
Carter is a global marketing strategist

…Help from colleagues and superiors, and developmental assignments are the keys to success. Outsiders, or people treated as outsiders (no matter how talented or well trained), rarely do as well. Black managers feel they are treated as outsiders, and because of the distance that race produces they don’t receive the benefit of these networks and relationships…. They rarely get the vote of confidence from superiors that helps them to move up step-by-step and allows them to learn the business. These assignments would give them the expertise, exposure, and knowledge necessary for promotion to top posts.

Edward W. Jones, Jr., “Black Managers: The Dream Deferred” Harvard Business Review May 1986


Not much has changed in over 30 years.

Business analysts agree diversity and inclusion work in tandem. Diversity checks boxes, inclusion creates opportunities. As one unit, they serve as a vital strategy for growth if companies want to market products and services to increasingly diverse generations. Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

Diversity consultant and TED speaker Vernā Myers once stated, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” She had even more to say when it comes to including multicultural millennial women within an organization:

If you were to compare the 80s to now, companies are still struggling to understand what inclusion means because they still don’t understand what cultural competence is. The reason why many company cultures don’t reflect millennials or women of color is because strangely enough people think they can invite difference but be the same.

Dog-whistle politics has existed for decades — the notion that coded messages from candidates mean one thing to the general public but in fact elude to a different resonance for a subsegment. Correspondingly, dog-whistle diversity and inclusion have existed for just as long.

Dog-whistle diversity and inclusion has once again become prevalent due to the multicultural female subsegment within the most diverse generation to date and the largest generation in the workforce (millennials). In hopes to reap the financial benefits of executing a diversity and inclusion strategy, organizations assign business metrics to their human resources departments to add more minorities and women to the company. To investors and the general public, they pride themselves on being diverse environments with equal opportunities for all employees.

Though the companies are increasing the headcount of multicultural employees, they are missing what researchers call effective diversity management, or the inclusion piece. These are the vital tools which lead to better decision making, authentic engagement amongst employees, innovation and thought leadership, and sustainable growth within an organization. It becomes evident organizations are making efforts towards diversity and inclusion in name only. Therefore, diversity is measured, but inclusion is ignored.

As a result, once multicultural women are onboarded, the absence of effective diversity management can make them feel subject to unconscious bias and discrimination. They begin expressing feelings of being patronized, unaccepted and tolerated. Rightfully so. For example, Black women are more likely to report feeling stalled, and to feel that their talents aren’t recognized by their superiors. The sense of ambient belonging — feeling comfortable in the workplace  (accepted, valued, and included) is absent. And when an organization has a low amount of minority executives, multicultural women interpret it as an indicator of barriers to advancement.

(To be clear: the notion of racism isn’t being discussed in this article, rather colorism, a stimulant for dog-whistle diversity and inclusion. Showing favoritism towards those with a similar skin color and unfavorably toward those with different skin color.)

From after-work dinners and happy hours to time on the golf course, the most successful way to climb up the corporate ladder isn’t inherently understood by these women like their white male counterparts. As double minorities, they experience the greatest challenges to socialization. Yes, Black and Latina women are attending college more than white males, but with regards to the corporate end game, a Fortune 500 report found 80% of corporate leaders are men and 72% of those men are white.

Myers provided more color, discussing studies which suggest that often the career trajectories of successful whites and people of color differ. A white professional’s trajectory tends to steadily increase, whereas a multicultural professional trajectory rises then plateaus regularly. This is because with every professional advancement for the latter, they must then work longer to build trust and overcome unconscious bias before the next promotion.

She also added that she finds multicultural female professionals interesting. “They’ve been taught to be colorblind, but in doing so have become colorblind to themselves. They’re hiding their most unique assets because they’re trying to fit in. If you are covering and it’s working for you, fine. But I see people not taking up enough space, which leads to people ignoring you.”

If most millennials expect to stay in their current job for less than five years, expect female minority millennials to stay for an even shorter period of time, due to low association as “in-group” members in male-majority work settings, sparser developmental opportunities and more career obstacles. Black women also find it “extremely difficult” to win sponsorship, which can be due to the fact that they have less visibility and connection opportunities with top executives.

Dog-whistle diversity and inclusion is such a sensitive topic that I guaranteed one of my interviewees anonymity with regards to her organization. Dr. Kristian Henderson’s candor could put medical colleagues at risk of being mistreated. In formal conversations Henderson heard from the organization that hard work was valued. But this was an example of dog-whistle diversity and inclusion:

I was privately told employees who work hard are just workers and don’t have the capacity for leadership. A misnomer we’ve taught a lot of people of color is to work really hard, because in doing so you’ll see the fruits of your labor. Unfortunately in corporate America that’s just not the way that it works. Hobnobbers get further than hard workers. We have to challenge some conventional wisdom around working hard, because those notions will hurt you more than help you.

Karen Bond is the president of Executive Alliance, an organization geared to accelerate the success and leadership of women in Maryland. Bond also happens to be a woman of color in a state whose percentage of women directors lags behind the national average. Bond’s advice to multicultural women is to look at your network and make sure it is diverse — within and outside the organization.

Indeed, to avoid Henderson’s image of being a “hard worker” within the organization, multicultural female professionals should put less emphasis on developing their content knowledge and more effort into navigating social structures, increasing interactions with colleagues and obtaining sponsorships.

Myers mentioned multicultural female professionals struggle with unwritten rules because they don’t always have access to someone like them because there is underrepresentation in leadership roles. “If you can, find a cultural informant when you’re on-boarded into a new organization. Someone who can help your translate the environment.”

So what is a woman to do when she feels reluctantly accepted by the organization? At a recent Nielsen event focused on diversity and inclusion, Stacie M. de Armas, thought leader and public affairs leader, put ownership on the organization to remove the barriers which hold back multicultural employees. “Give diverse associates access, opportunity and visibility. Those are the things that people want when they want to grow their career.”

Myers provides advice to women:

You still need to work smart and be excellent, but do so in a positive, strategic way. Determine who are the influencers within the company, and create a strategic approach to build relationships with those individuals. Show a level of enthusiasm for your work. Discuss your success within the company, and most importantly, you must be able to influence without authority. People really like you if you help them do what they need to do well.

Dog-whistle diversity and inclusion isn’t an overt concept. It’s difficult for companies to respond to things that are more cultural. Inclusion itself is difficult to quantify, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But organizations must accept that dog-whistle diversity and inclusion exists, and openly discuss it (and the role of unconscious bias) within their organization for multicultural female professionals. The cards can be stacked against these women due to old biases, beliefs and attitudes. But for those who interested in staying with their organization, they shouldn’t simply “stick it out” for the sake of pride. They must champion a culture shift, asserting their choices — both personally and professionally — are important in this world.

Lastly Myers concluded, “if you’re doing all this and you’re still not getting on the dance floor, it’s perfectly acceptable to go to another party.”

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