Global CEO Transformation @Accenture | Public Speaker | Passionate Diversity & Inclusion Leader | Networking Champion.
Almost 60 years after music icon Sam Cooke released his epic single “A Change is Gonna Come,” Cooke’s vision of equality in all facets of society still resonates. “It’s been a long time coming,” Cooke croons early in the song, “But I know a change gonna come. Oh, yes it will.” Sadly, much of the change is unrealized in 2021. While we have made some progress since the 1960s, many people are still grossly underrepresented in leadership roles in business, and these employees often deal with stealthy discrimination in the workplace. Equality has not necessarily paved the way for equity.
Prioritizing equality means giving employees equal access to opportunities in the workplace; prioritizing equity means the workplace has proportional representation across all levels of the organization. Often, the quest for equity asks those in power to be willing to share their power or give it away.
Consider the numbers: Data from Pew Research Center in 2019 showed that 46.8 million Americans — about 14% of the population — self-identified as Black. In an equitable business environment, we might expect to find that 14% of senior executives are Black. Unfortunately, this is nowhere near the real number. A 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that among U.S. companies with at least one hundred employees, just 3% of senior managers were Black. In Fortune 500 companies, there are only four Black CEOs. The data shows that U.S. companies, especially those in the upper echelon of revenue, are not equitable. And remember, the data here only describes underrepresentation of Black individuals.
Racial discrimination in the workplace is by no means the only form of discrimination. For LGBTQ+ people, discrimination can appear in actions that business leaders implement to keep LGBTQ+ team members “out of sight.” In the Bostock v. Clayton County case, a Clayton County employee was fired after participating in a gay softball league, a move that made his sexual orientation public. Clayton County officials found the Bostock engaged in “conduct unbecoming of a county employee.”
In its guidance to employers after the Supreme Court’s 2021 Bostock ruling, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noted that federal law prohibits businesses from segregating LGBTQ+ employees to certain locations based on customer preferences or keeping them out of public-facing positions. EEOC guidelines also prohibit employers from retaliating against those who shine the light on business practices that discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals.
Given this snapshot of data, the absence of equity in the workplace is indisputable. Even leaders who assert something like “all are equal here” are often failing to grasp the idea that access to opportunity is not the same as having an opportunity. So, what do we do about the equity problem? For starters, I think we must recognize that equity is not achieved with only a few simple fixes. Addressing the equity issue will not be accomplished overnight. A change will come as more leaders accept the fact that their organizations are grossly inequitable and then develop a plan to address inequity.
Do the research.
I think the best way to test assumptions about culture and equity is to dig into the data. The numbers do not lie. Spend time mining your organization’s “people data.” Who is part of this organization? How do they self-identify? Where do they serve, and what is their span of control? Does your leadership cadre look like the larger organization? When the reports arrive, be transparent. Everyone in your organization should have access to your research and the license to ask the tough questions that the data will inevitably generate.
Use the data to build a plan.
You may find that the data shows your organization understands equality but has limited understanding around what equity is about. Educate your team, and when everyone is on the same page with their understanding, build a plan to address the insight found in the data. This will require a thorough review of the organization’s hiring and promotion practices. Scary data can drive action and may lead to measurable progress. Scary data can also lead to specific measurements. Construct goals for your organization that assert something like, “By 2025, at least 20% of our leadership will come from underrepresented groups.”
As you begin to meet your goals, consider raising the stakes. Remember that four CEOs among 500 businesses is less than 1% and nowhere close to 14%. There is plenty of work to do. What about equity at the middle and entry-level spaces in the organization? If you seek data here — and I believe you should — begin with compensation data. Are underrepresented employees compensated at the same level as their organizational peers? If not, work to understand the root causes and act.
Research conducted by McKinsey and Company shows that gender-diverse and ethnically-diverse companies are more likely to outperform their peers. Positive movement toward equity enhances organizational culture because diverse leadership brings new perspectives, methodologies and vision to the organization. Further, a move toward equity at all levels of the organization can improve morale. When employees feel they are valued by those in leadership roles, they are more likely to put in the extra effort to see organizational vision realized. If equity fosters diverse perspectives, methodologies and vision at the leadership level in your organization, imagine what it could do for the broader organization.
A change will surely come.
I think the most haunting lyrics in Cooke’s masterwork arrive near the end of the song: “Then I go to my brother, and I say, brother, help me please. But he winds up, knockin’ me back down on my knees.” For too long, our oppressed neighbors have been promised equity but not given the means to start the organizational climb where their colleagues begin. Will we keep knocking under-represented employees down or finally deal with the systems that deny and diminish? A change is possible when the empowered begin to share and give away their power.