How can I make a difference in my corporate diversity committee?
November 17, 2016 3:43 PM   Subscribe

I'm a recent hire into a rotational program at a major engineering company/supplier in the automotive industry. A committee has just been formed to promote diversity in our group of 40-50 rotational employees. I'm passionate about the topic and eager to make a difference, but this is my first time in a role like this, and I don't know what will be helpful for me to do. I'm also certain that I have blind spots, and I want to try and come into this as informed as I can be. Can you help me figure out where I should try to push the committee's mission and agenda?

Here are some background facts:
  • The rotational program hires new grads (bachelor's and master's). They stay in the program for two years before taking a full-time position at the company, so most of us are 22-26 years old.
  • About 60% of the group are engineers; the rest are a mix of finance, logistics, and marketing.
  • Based on a quick head count I did when I joined the group, it's about 80% male in the technical roles, 70% male in the commercial roles. HR doesn't publish any racial demographic data, and I didn't make guesses there.
  • The scope of the committee is limited to the group of us rotational employees, although we work with the HR staff that do recruiting and hiring and have the ability to make suggestions to them.
  • The employees in the program are spread out across North America, but we meet twice a year for a two-day conference. We can suggest topics, speakers, or themes for these conferences (which are also run by rotational employees).
  • I am a white dude, and an engineer.
Here are my concerns:
  • The corporate diversity messaging here really turns me off by being deeply unambitious and bland. There are "yay diversity!" posters, but they are mostly green and yellow stick figures holding hands with some copy about the "differences that make us stronger". Is there value in this communication style I'm not seeing?
  • Because our group is transient, it should closely reflect graduating class demographics from our recruitment schools. To me, it looks like we are skewing more white male than even the graduating engineering class demo.
  • The current stated goals of the diversity committee are also bland: "Mission: Prepare employees for leadership roles in diverse teams ... provide them with tools and skills to navigate BigCorp's diverse culture while being inclusive of all people".
  • I'm not sure how much awareness or buy-in there is in the group of rotational employees: on the conference call when the committee was announced, there was only one question: "have you seen any of the stuff that says that diversity efforts can actually hurt companies instead of helping them?" ... not promising.
  • I worry that my white-dude-ness means that I don't understand the experience and desires of other groups very well, and I'm not sure how to approach other employees to open a conversation about these things.

Here are some of my ideas for actions:
  • Publish semi-annual demographic metrics for the rotational program (by Census race/ethnicity categories?), and include data on the graduating class demographics of the universities we recruit from.
  • Request disclosure of the BigCorp North America's EEO-1 data (is this a bombshell?)
  • (?) Publish an anonymous survey for rotational employees to report their experience with workplace harassment
  • Request that HR publishes summary information on pay equity between male and female trainees, possibly including summarized performance review data (average performance review scores by gender and job role; women's compensation offers as a % of men's; average annual pay raise percentages by gender?)
Here's what I hope to have input on:
  • Are these action ideas good? Are any of them actually counterproductive in a way I haven't foreseen?
  • Am I likely to be taking any big risks or stepping on any toes politically that I might not predict?
  • Am I being snooty about the corporate diversity messaging I see as boilerplate? What companies have killer, down-to-earth, direct diversity messaging?
  • Assuming the committee has little to no actual power besides communication, what can it be our goal to communicate?
  • I expect I will face pushback along the way and need to justify my suggestions. What are good evidence-based resources for defining and justifying corporate diversity initiatives?
Thanks so much in advance for your help.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
First off, I want to applaud you for your earnestness. I get that you want to want to fix things, but I want to raise some points about the context of your suggestions.

The action ideas you've suggested about data collection would take a serious amount of political capital that you likely do not have at this point in your career. Beyond that, the subject matter is politically fraught enough that even asking about the possibility of publishing stats could raise questions about your professional judgment.

So, about a third of the people in your rotational program are women, yes? With ~50 rotational program members in total, any statistic you report that's disaggregated by at least gender could present some sort of disclosure risk where individual women or groups of women can be singled out. This risk may increase substantially if you report by both gender and job role. The possibility of releasing sensitive information that can be even falsely attributed to a specific group of people increases even further If you do a survey on workplace harassment. Just because a survey is anonymous doesn't mean that the information collected through it isn't attributable with an educated guess. Your intentions are good, but data can very easily hurt the people it's meant to help.

As much as you'd like this to reflect the group's membership to reflect the cohort's demographic makeup, you should understand that some of your POC and female peers may not want to associate themselves with a diversity committee. Some POC and/or women don't see these sorts of programs as relevant to them, and others may have experienced or be wary of negative consequences to bringing identity politics into the workplace. Sadly, a lot of POC and women who are vocal about diversity issues in the workplace have had others imply that they're looking for special treatment. As a white guy in engineering, on the other hand, your involvement in the diversity committee has the potential to make you look like you have all the soft skills. This difference alone is something that could affect your ability to get buy-in from your colleagues.

If you want to do a good job of this, just be woke, and help your colleagues be woke, too. Build authentic professional relationships with people who aren't exactly like you, and learn what they need to make their rotational experience a success. Very often, that's far more about empathy than it is about a well-crafted mission statement.
posted by blerghamot at 4:54 PM on November 17, 2016

I'm a 55 y/o white female lesbian engineering manager who worked at Hewlett-Packard from 1983-2003. I also participated in many corporate diversity events from the Gay & Lesbian Employee Network to diversity training to various and sundry management discussions of diversity topics.

If BigCorp is organizing this for rotational employees, they must have some sort of similar organization for all employees. I would try to connect up with that organization and especially long-term employees who have been working on diversity at BigCorp for a while. They will be able to give you an idea of the lay of the land.

Yes, I think when you do anything beyond "rah, diversity is good, we love BigCorp because it is so cool" you are at risk. If you point out issues that upper management doesn't want to deal with, you are at risk. I would suggest thinking about what you are trying to accomplish, what is the most effective way to accomplish it, and whether or not it is worth the risk to you. You might find out who BigCorp aspires to be or who are their rivals and point out what those companies are doing regarding diversity. For instance, if my company aspired to be Facebook, I would point out that Facebook released their diversity statistics. I think learning how to raise difficult issues in a productive way will be useful for you, especially if you aspire to management :).

I think if you are in a BigCorp, especially one run by engineers, any "social good" messaging (diversity, environment, sustainability) is going to be pretty boiler plate compared to what you might see in a small startup or Zappos or a non-profit. You will have to determine whether or not this is the kind of environment you want to work in -- my opinion is that change is possible in these kinds of BigCorps, but it is more incremental in nature. You may find the work that Debra Meyerson has done on "Tempered Radicals" to be of interest (or horror :)).

Hope this helps!
posted by elmay at 4:58 PM on November 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

The purpose of this committee is to implement the existent diversity policy and philosophy. If you don't agree with the policy or philosophy, do not join this committee. Pursue your political values in your off time and rejoin the diversity effort when you have enough seniority to be a potential change agent.
posted by MattD at 5:09 PM on November 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I worked for a large company that had fewer POC and women in their R&D group than you are describing. But being a large corporation and having been taken to task by an extremely ineffective but very large and powerful HR group, we were tasked with making it appear as though the company put a lot of effort into improving diversity issues, which there were basically very few since they hired so few POC and women to begin with. If I were you, I would implement two plans, one being to improve relations among the majority population, white male engineers, and 2 improve communication among the POC and women as a separate group. Forcing these two groups together in a well-intentioned session is extremely uncomfortable and demeaning to the minority groups, IMO. However, the plan must be such that you aren't segregating the groups or giving different messages but rather creating a safer environment for people to talk. For example, there are women only AA groups for this very reason, and many of these women will choose to also attend co-ed groups, but there is a very different feeling in the women only groups that is very important either all the time or just occasionally for women. If you are effectively improving the work environment for all and doing so in a way that promotes trust and respect for each other, albeit not necessarily in the same room, I think it would be very helpful. People want to get along but if there is a pervasive attitude that they are too stupid to do it without the help of an HR program there is little enthusiasm and may even embarrass people into just eating lunch in their cubicles rather than feeling free to get to know their coworkers because they want to. The diverse group I worked with in another setting had no problems figuring this stuff out on our own but the difference was that we didn't fear rejection, that is really important.
posted by waving at 5:41 AM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's literature about the way "diversity" and "inclusion" are not super helpful terms. A term you can look up is white fragility (Robin DiAngelo wrote a great article about it). I think fragility will be a part of whatever you work toward. Also look up "intersectionality."

You have a great opportunity here to influence and train the people who will become future leaders in the company. I would focus on inviting the cohort to become the best possible allies they can be, so they can use that lens when they're in the position to make hiring decisions and evaluate teams and manage people. Everyone will be on a different point on their journey; some will explicitly own anti-racism and feminism, and others will not be there yet and will want everyone to "set aside their differences," "just get along," "stop making a big deal of it," and "not see race." That's okay. If those people come out of your communications series with a more curious, inquisitive, open mindset, they're one step farther along. If the white people come out of it with an understanding of their own whiteness and white culture (and recognize they HAVE a culture, if they didn't before); and the dudes recognize some of their mores are not universal; that's success as well. If you can find the place where peoples' passion or interest or career ambition connects with this area, and fuel it to the point they can continue their journey after they leave the cohort, that's great, too.

There are some theories of adult learning that may be helpful as you look to design curriculum.

Consider that the people from traditionally marginalized groups are experts, in a sense, in what can be done and what feels right. Check in with people across your cohort and in the company. Look for your allies in this work and connect with them.

And try to use some of your resources to get training for yourself and others who are eager to move forward in this area. Equip yourself so you can do a great job of this now and throughout your career.

You sound super awesome and I appreciate the questions you're asking. You mention this: "I worry that my white-dude-ness means that I don't understand the experience and desires of other groups very well, and I'm not sure how to approach other employees to open a conversation about these things." It's totally fine. Why would you be an expert? This can actually be a strength for you and is one reason I'd appreciate having you in a leadership role for this work (as a woman). You very much have permission to not understand the experience of others; it's normal not to. If each of us approached others with the assumption we did not understand them, and applied some tools and curiosity to seek to understand without judging, we would get so much farther. And when you, a white man, admit this around other white men, it may encourage them to give themselves permission to also not be experts. I would also be receptive if you approached me for a conversation with this frame.

If you want someone to talk to about this, you might find Bill Keats a helpful resource: Maybe he can suggest some others to connect with as well.
posted by ramenopres at 7:10 AM on November 18, 2016

Plenty of solid advice here for building relationships to support cultural shift, and this is about so much more than numbers. Look at people like Tim Rice (White Like Me) and Debby Irving (Waking up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race) for supporting context and retention through bias awareness. Deal with the white people as part of racial diversity.

You haven't mentioned this, but socioeconomic diversity/class should also be addressed unless all of your support staff is unionized. Bringing along those without a college degree is also important. Seth Gordon has a short blog post on "the foundation, not the bottom" which can be found with a quick internet search.

Also, with the EEO-1 material - it's externally reported, however a lot of that is nuanced information. 12% of the country is black with higher and lower concentrations in many areas of the country. 30%+ of Americans have a bachelor's degree or higher...and so it goes. It's not simple math, and many changes in employee demographics are tied with departure, followed by hiring, so change is really, really slow, so cultivating the culture that rides well with this upcoming wave of the future is the best first step.

Best wishes
posted by childofTethys at 1:24 PM on November 21, 2016

For your two-day conferences, I would advocate communication skills workshops. I've been reading Nonviolent Communication and it addresses some of the white/male emotional fragility that I've internalized over the years. Good communication skills can also help homogeneous groups be more welcoming to people of different backgrounds. Looks like the Center for Nonviolent Communication offers workshops.

It's good professional development for everyone and is consistent with the bland mission statement, so you won't immediately be labeled as a provocateur. Also, when you later push for more radical changes, your cohort will be trained in best practices for considering and discussing them!
posted by sibilatorix at 7:15 PM on November 23, 2016

« Older Help me find cabinet hinges.   |   Does he do what Daddy did to Mommy to get me? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.