What’s the deal with the lack of diversity? (workplace edition)
December 29, 2014 11:48 AM   Subscribe

I work for a large corporation in a typical business office setting. Our workforce is very diverse at the associate and Jr. Manager level. Above that, not so much. I am meeting with some senior leaders (mostly mid aged straight white guys) over the next couple of weeks to discuss career progression possibilities for myself and team, and am looking for a way to broach this subject without sounding accusatory or confrontational. I thought the hive mind might have some insight. This could also just be an un-discussable. You tell me.

Any thoughts on how to gracefully ask what the deal is? I’m interested in how we got to where we are, what they see on the horizon, and any insight into commonalities of those who move up (or don’t) in the organization. I haven’t been with the company very long, so I don’t have many years to draw on. Maybe there’s an angle there?
posted by walkinginsunshine to Work & Money (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a great idea for how you broach this topic, but I would probably separate it from the issue of your personal career progression, unless diversity is part of your job portfolio.

Is there a diversity coordinator in your company? He or she might be a good person to talk to to get the lay of the land, especially as you've not been there long.
posted by chocotaco at 11:54 AM on December 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Personally, I would not bring up that you observed any disparity at all. That's the kind of thing you talk to your lawyer about, not your boss, unless you're very comfortable with them. I'd try to frame your questions in as positive a way as possible, by asking about diversity programs and training opportunities and so on.
posted by empath at 11:59 AM on December 29, 2014 [8 favorites]

Think this through very carefully. What are you asking for? What kind of answer do you expect to receive? I can promise you that "Wow, you're right!" is not going to be on the table. You will probably hear some "possibilities for your team are limited only by their commitment to excellence!" and maybe a tuneful medley of "binders full of women" and "you're imagining it," with "are you calling us racist" as a reprise later on.

Beware. Here be dragons.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:02 PM on December 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Or you could say something like: "As a woman, you can probably understand that I worry that I won't be in the mix for promotions and opportunities. What can I do to keep my name on the top of the pile, when you're looking to move someone up?" Something to let them know that it's a concern for you _in general_ rather than a concern about this company _in particular_. It's a hard line to walk and I don't envy you.
posted by empath at 12:03 PM on December 29, 2014 [11 favorites]

If your company has been serious about career progression for existing staff for a while, it could well be that the current crop of executives came from a pool of straight white guy underlings. Assuming your company's underlings are more diverse now than 20 years ago, then your executive team will diversify organically through attrition.

Also, these meetings are about you and your team. Not about diversity policy (which you can probably get from HR).
posted by headnsouth at 12:03 PM on December 29, 2014 [10 favorites]

If you want to move up in the company, asking this question is impolitic in the extreme. The straight answer is racism, sexism, homophobia. You know it, I know it, they know it. If you want to push them on this, be prepared to be written off as an unpromotable troublemaker.

So use this time to discuss your future with the company, and when you're in a position to do something about it, hire a diverse workforce.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:06 PM on December 29, 2014 [9 favorites]

Beware, indeed. That's a "have you stopped beating your wife?" topic. Keep it about you and your team. Later, when you know more folks and have been there longer you can ask peers about this issue. The execs, HR and Diversity execs included, are following the corporate Playbook. It's easier to get truth from power when you have power.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:09 PM on December 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is the kind of topic I would probably discuss with people in my larger network who I particularly trusted as mentors, and not my immediate employer.

In a general conversation about career progression with my employer, the furthest I would go would be to take their "insight into commonalities of those who move up (or don’t) in the organization" and try to unpack that in ways that may be relevant for me or my background rather than discuss whether some particular socioeconomic factor is holding me back. For example, suppose your goal is to be an executive on the teacup account and you are hearing that the best teacup executives go to a teacup finishing school that costs $60,000 a year and most people go to it straight from Harvard, Yale or Princeton. If the conversation is coming from a place of encouragement, a logical question would be whether they know about any special teacup fellowships to encourage nontraditional applicants. But that may not be a conversation you can have right away.
posted by AndrewInDC at 12:11 PM on December 29, 2014

I am meeting with some senior leaders (mostly mid aged straight white guys) over the next couple of weeks to discuss career progression possibilities for myself and team

You can find out about diversity initiatives but not during this time. In advance of your meeting (or after if necessary given scheduling), go to you HR person and ask about the company's diversity initiatives. Have a few particular questions ready; if the person doesn't know the answer, he or she can probably find out within a few days.

I honestly don't think it's a good idea to do this during what sounds like an annual review meeting. It's kind of off topic - this meeting is about you specifically and your specific team members, not diversity in general. If I was reviewing you, I'd think you could've gotten this info any time by way of HR; if you really cared, why wait until a high pressure situation like this?
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 12:12 PM on December 29, 2014

I have done this. I got demoted because I called attention to the profound misogyny that dominates my men-are-the-majority company. Tread so, so carefully.
posted by Hermione Granger at 12:12 PM on December 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I can think of nothing good that will come from this for you (or anyone else).
posted by toomuchpete at 12:22 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

As others have pointed out, this sounds like a great way to screw up your career. I'd talk to anybody but the straight white cisgender dudes who sign your paychecks. This is something to discuss with a lawyer, if you're serious about forcing reform at your workplace, or speaking with an investigative reporter who cares about diversity under strict conditions of anonymity.

But first, ask yourself why you care about this. Your motive will play a subconscious role in determining your methods, so you might as well give it a conscious role instead.
posted by starbreaker at 12:29 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with headnsouth that it might just be the diversity has not floated to the top yet. The question you want to ask is "What qualities do you look for when you're looking to promote someone?" They're not going to say "They have to be white and male" (even if that's the case) but you'll have something to quote back to them anyway. Ask also whether they promote from within for senior positions or do they go external (and bring in more white males.)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:46 PM on December 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

The senior leaders in your company got into their present positions due to the excellence of their work and their ability to effectively network. They will understand your desire for career advancement. They will suggest that you take on additional work for no additional pay in order to advance your career. At evaluation time you will receive a raise that is larger than usual and some kind words about your performance. Keep it up for a couple years and you have a real shot at senior management.

It's great that you are concerned about the career progression of your team but your primary concern needs to be yourself.
posted by Rob Rockets at 1:19 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're noticing the universal problem in corporate upper management. So common that it's got a name in Australia, "pale, male and stale". (We also have it in our government.)

Chances of promotion for women and people from minority groups, in a place like this, are slim. They'll tell you if you work hard (and act like a pale stale male) you'll rise to the top just like anyone else. I very much doubt this.

Asking them directly about the lack of senior diversity will label you as a problem. Instead ask about how to enhance your career progression opportunities. Then nod and go find a cleverer emoloyer. These folk won't change. In your exit interview, tell them why you took your amazing skills and experience and left.
posted by taff at 1:22 PM on December 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

The senior leaders in your company got into their present positions due to the excellence of their work and their ability to effectively network.

Yeah, nah. You're not seeing a lack of diversity at the top because there are no women or people from minorities with the skills and abilities. This kind of glass ceiling denial perpetuates the myth that minority peoples and women just aren't good enough or committed enough (women and babbies!) to get to the top. It's bullshit and offensive.

Don't believe it or you'll never look for change and will always believe all senior managers are good at their jobs. Oh ho ho. We all know that's bollocks.
posted by taff at 1:29 PM on December 29, 2014 [9 favorites]

If you want to work on diversity, I'd go into it with the (verbal) presumption that everyone you talk to is going to be on your side for this, not antagonistic. "Joe, I wanted to tell you about the rock star job Maria did with the teacup account last quarter. She is definitely ready for the Executive MBA fast track the CEO mentioned at the company meeting last month. What do we need to do to get her on the short list for that? And Omar is really showing a lot of promise as a team lead. I think we should send him to Scrum training in the next budget cycle, and he can take over the team lead for antique sugar bowls when I start working with the product design team as we just discussed."
posted by instamatic at 2:12 PM on December 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

At work, a good rule of thumb is to bring solutions, not complaints. If you have nothing to say on the topic other than "Why are all y'all a bunch of straight white dudes?", then you are doing it wrong. (Also, some gay men and even men of color hide it very well and that is part of how they got to where they are: By APPEARING to be straight, white dudes. Accidentally outing one of them is a wonderful way to destroy your future.)

If you can figure out the subtle, not (directly) race or gender based ways in which women and people of color are excluded and find a remedy for that without accusing anyone, you may some day get lauded for it. (Or you may find that trying to take credit for it remains dangerous territory, but you can quietly feel proud of yourself.)

Having said that, what might be useful to make headway here without rocking the boat, is to ask them point blank if there is anything you are failing to do that is normal for your job or typical for people getting ahead. This might get you some excellent feedback about things women/people of color/whomever are not doing that white males are doing without making it a race issue. It also might indirectly highlight some of the ways in which minorities are invisibly kept out. But, with luck, it will help you (and others) start overcoming those obstacles so the next generation of leadership in this company isn't pale, male and stale.
posted by Michele in California at 2:37 PM on December 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

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