Groundhog Day for Diversity Leaders

Groundhog DayIt’s my favorite time of the year, Oscar season. I love both movies and awards shows so I have watched (and rewatched) every Oscars since, likely, birth. Now perhaps you’ve seen the hashtag around the Oscars this year, #OscarsSoWhite. Does that sound familiar? If it does, then it’s because it’s the exact same hashtag we saw last year. All 20 acting nominees last year were white. Ditto for this year. Happy Groundhog Day, everyone!

Or is it? This year, the Academy decided to do something about the cavalcade of negative press #OscarsSoWhite has received. See, the Oscars are voted on by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A survey done by the Los Angeles Times found that 94% of Academy members were Caucasian, 77% were male and their median age was 62.

The Academy’s Diversity Initiative

In response to #OscarsSoWhite, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced a new diversity initiative. The goal? “[T]o commit to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” The Academy will not only cull its membership of voting members who haven’t been active in films for ten years, it will also launch “an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.” In addition, it “will establish three new governor seats that will be nominated by the President for three-year terms and confirmed by the Board.” Finally, the Academy will add “new members who are not Governors to its executive and board committees where key decisions about membership and governance are made.”

The Academy is expressly making everyone aware that the organization actively supports diversity by committing to a path of inclusion. And who made that path? The Academy leadership. That’s where change begins.

Groundhog Day for Diversity

Change. That’s what missing this Groundhog Day. Very soon, NALP and the American Lawyer will reveal their annual diversity reports and they are almost guaranteed to say the same things they have said for years: there has been little change in legal diversity. “Small gains,” NALP said last year. “Hardly budged,” is the phrase the American Lawyer used.  Will #LawyersSoWhite be the next hashtag trend?

Pat Milhizer, the former editor of the Chicago Lawyer wrote one of my favorite quotes on diversity in the legal profession. I’ve used it before. In the Chicago Lawyer’s 2014 diversity edition, he wrote:

For the eight years I’ve covered and followed the legal community, the advancement of women and minorities hasn’t changed much. You could pull a headline from a [diversity] study done in 2006 and put it on a 2014 study, and it would work just fine.

How to Move Diversity & Inclusion Forward

Diversity training has gotten a bad rap lately. The conclusion is that, despite billions of dollars spent, the needle hasn’t moved forward at all.

But we all still need some diversity training. Because here’s how inclusion starts. It starts first with recognizing that we aren’t blind to race even when we think we are or should be. The movements on college campuses around statements made by faculty, buildings named for controversial persons (including at my alma mater), and the recognition that formerly excluded groups want their voices to be heard, all make it clear that there is a long conversation on race that we are still having. And of course, there’s pushback from many in the white majority who feel their voices are now being silenced.

So yes, we need to talk about microaggressions, and confirmation bias, and the assumptions we make about people who are outside of our expectations. We need to talk about implicit bias. One study found that partners will score a memo written by a white associate higher than an identical memo written by a black associate, if they know the race of the author. Another study – 250 fictional people with a variety of ethnically identifiable names, Brad Anderson, Lamar Washington, Mei Chen, sent identical emails to top professors around the country, saying they were interested in their work and would love to talk more with them. The findings? Women and minorities were systematically less likely to get responses from the professors. Especially Indian and Chinese students. And it didn’t matter who they reached out to, male professor, female professor, black professor. It’s across the board. Implicit bias is ingrained in our very nature.

What can you do? Diversify your circle of influencers. Go outside your usual comfort zones. Read newspapers you don’t agree with. Listen to commentators you usually dismiss. Check your own thought processes to see if you’re creating stereotypes and barriers in your head. You might be surprised by what you find.

And that’s what diversity training and awareness have taught us. But that’s not enough.

Leading the Change of Diversity

Read this study out of MIT. When employees believe the motivation for diversity training is extra-organizational (legal compliance, for example) the diversity training will backfire. On the other hand, when the motivation is organizational or individual voluntarism, trainees will internalize training lessons and managerial diversity will rise. The study found that this held true regardless of the type of diversity training. The researchers concluded that successful diversity training cannot be about external mandates, but rather, organizational goals.

In the case of training, it is one thing to signal that workforce diversity is a goal of distant regulators. It is another thing to signal that workforce inclusion and diversity are important to the success of the firm … [E]mployees will internalize goals they perceive as important to their organization as well as those they perceive as autonomously chosen.

The organization needs to send a message to its membership that diversity and inclusion matter, from the very top all the way down. According to the study, that commitment overcomes the traditional resistance to diversity, including from those who believe diversity training reinforces stereotypes, and from the white majority who believe that multiculturalism excludes them.

If you want your organization to be more inclusive, then leadership needs to pave the way. Leadership needs to highlight that diversity is an organization-wide, primary goal, not something that comes out of a compliance office. Commit to diversity. Commit to inclusion. Learn from the lessons of #OscarsSoWhite. The Academy did. Let’s aim for a Groundhog Day that doesn’t repeat the headlines of this one. That’s where the future lies.

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

One thought on “Groundhog Day for Diversity Leaders

  1. Bingo, bingo, bingo! This topic (like any other that involves the human heart and its motivations) isn’t well-served by just harping on statistics and preaching at lawyers, reminding them of the high and noble calling that law is supposed to be. (Or worse, by trying to make them feel guilt or shame.) From my perspective as a CLE provider, practicing attorney, and former law professor (for a fantastically diverse student body), it seems that there is an opportunity here to try a different approach. We need to create safe, welcoming environments/opportunities for honest conversations about cultural and other differences, and implicit bias, and then to take a more realistic approach aimed at improving lawyers’ self-awareness, other-awareness, and self-control so they can monitor and learn to manage biases. And we think it is also crucial for each of us to dig down to the roots of unconscious and conscious biases-those formative experiences we have had and the unhelpful or distorted messages we have been exposed to that have grown up to produce the attitude and behaviors that may sometimes show up for even the most well-intentioned person. As we say in our interactive workshop on this subject,”Accidental Racists… and Other Elephants in the Room” (built thematically around the LL Cool J / Brad Paisley collaboration from a few years ago), we have to “pull up bias by the roots…” and that is hard work. But it is worthwhile work, nevertheless…

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