An Unlikely Champion for Diversity

I was refreshing my bio recently and I came across the line “a long-time champion of diversity”- which makes me a little uncomfortable. Why? Because too often the “diversity initiatives”, particularly at the Wall Street firms where I spent the last few decades, are almost always accounting or legal exercises (How many women? How many African-Americans? Can we count our LGBT population?).

It is true that I have been very active with the various Diversity councils, boards and other similar initiatives throughout my career- but most definitely not for accounting or legal reasons. What is the actual point of Diversity?

1) Diversity keeps an organization honest. Have you ever noticed whenever there has been a scandal on Wall Street there are inevitably a group of people who have fallen into the “group think” trap? Irrespective of race, gender or any other aspect of diversity, the bad stuff happens when there isn’t someone with a different point of view speaking up and saying, “hey guys, that sounds like a bad idea”. Away from Wall Street, there is a great example of this in the movie “the Informant”. I once had the opportunity to meet Mark Whitacre (the actual informant) and his story is a living example of what can go wrong when group-think takes over.

2) I, like many people, want to be myself at work. Unfortunately, far too many organization that promote diversity initiatives also are the same ones where employees have to put on their “work front” or “game face” when they walk through the doors (there is an excellent book by Kenji Yoshino called “Covering” which is about this topic, which I strongly recommend!). Many people have assumed in the past that what makes me “diverse” is that I am a woman in a dominantly male profession. Not at all. What has made me “diverse” on Wall Street have been things like being a single parent on Wall Street, or having grown up with financial challenges among people who largely had very privileged upbringings, or my faith. All of those things are part of what make me who I am, and I don’t want to have to hide them to make other people comfortable. Early in my career, I was determined that being a single mother would not in any way impact my work. I went way overboard trying to make sure that my child’s doctor’s appointment or a parent/teacher conference would not in any way make my boss or colleagues think that I was “less” as an employee. Then one day I woke up and realized that my colleagues all have family or other obligations, and I was literally making myself sick in trying to “cover” the reality of my life. That was the beginning of my focus on championing diversity- realizing that a company needs to encourage every single person to feel free to bring their whole selves to work — so we can all spend our energy on what matters. We spend a lot of effort on hiring the right people, and they should be judged on the work they do-and not any other aspect of their personal life, characteristics, habits or interests.

3) What does diversity “look like”? One of the things that bugs me about corporate diversity initiatives is that they tend to reduce every individual to homogenous “diversity buckets”- the exact opposite of the point of the exercise. If the point is to get diversity of thoughts, the best people and the most creative ideas, those are not things that you can observe by looking at someone. You can only get that by fostering a culture that nourishes and encourages people who will challenge with new and better ideas. I remember years ago I had two interns who were roughly doing the same job- but we had only one spot to make a job offer. One candidate was “diverse” in that they fit into a predefined diversity bucket. The other one was not. I received a visit from my HR partner who assumed that we would give the “diverse” candidate that job — but there was more to the story. I had gotten to know the “not diverse” candidate- and although he didn’t check any of the diversity boxes, what I knew about him was that he had been raised by a single mother- never knew his father. His mother died when he was in high school and he raised himself from there- getting scholarships and putting himself through college. He also happened to be gay. My point to the HR partner was that this candidate was definitely diverse in the sense that he had different challenges and experiences than most of the interns in his class, they just weren’t visible to the eye. We ultimately were able to make them both offers. Diversity is definitely more than skin deep.

I realize that it is a lot harder to create a company that is truly diverse than one that ticks the boxes- but by the way, that tick the box exercise is not working out too well for the big corporate firms either. As human beings, we gravitate towards diversity in a natural setting. Think about how we thrill to the splendor of a rain forest, or the vivid colors of a coral reef. Our attraction towards creativity and creation is evident as we are naturally draws to relish variety. There is abundant evidence that real diversity- of thoughts and ideas- helps our employees and our businesses to be as strong and productive as possible, and that is why it is a cause worth championing.