How Far Corporations Still Need To Go To Actually Reflect America’s Diversity

PwC’s Chief Diversity Officer on building a corporate America that reflects the diversity of its population.

How Far Corporations Still Need To Go To Actually Reflect America’s Diversity
[Image: Flickr user natasha]

As the chief diversity officer for PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers) , I spend a lot of time thinking about the kind of 21st-century workforce every great company needs. What keeps me up at night is whether the firm has done everything possible to create a welcoming culture, one in which people of all backgrounds feel at home–at least during the workday.


I know we’ve made progress. There are many more women partners at PwC today than a decade ago when I earned that title. In general, the corporate world looks different than it did when I took my first job at a financial services company in 1990. It was rigid. The few women I worked with didn’t dare to wear pants, and bright colors brought stares. I learned that the hard way when I showed up for my week of work in a bright purple suit my mother bought for me.

But there is still much more we need to do. For starters, business leaders need to dream big for their employees, especially for minorities, women, and those from low-income backgrounds who may have been the first in their family to go to college. Many of these young people, and even some who have been working for years, may not be able to dream big for themselves or see themselves living and working in a world beyond their current one.

Without a doubt, I became a partner at PwC in 2004 because others believed in me more than I believed in myself. I’m a first-generation Mexican-American immigrant from a poor family. My parents had a sixth-grade education. I just didn’t have the perspective to envision my life as it is today. While my parents dreamed for me, they didn’t dream big enough. It took a partner within the firm to help me understand the career opportunities that existed if I took a position in our national office in the New York area–one I would never have considered without his suggestion.

Strength Through Diversity

Companies also need to create accountability systems and incentives for diversity. PwC has a formal sponsorship program that requires every one of our 2,800 partners to sponsor three diverse employees–people of a different race, ethnicity, or gender. The partner’s role at PwC is to help the more junior employees develop professionally and serve as an advocate for them during evaluations, and as opportunities arise. This kind of structured program is absolutely necessary because people are busy and when they do occasionally find themselves able to take someone under their wing, it’s usually someone who looks like them.

We also have to examine the talent pipeline, and think about where companies are looking for new hires. Instead of only recruiting from the same prestigious colleges and universities each year, we need to think more broadly about that young adult like myself who went to a local college, the University of Texas at El Paso. I had the grades to go elsewhere, but staying close to home was affordable and culturally acceptable.

Let’s face it. The skills gap is a recognized problem in America, with many CEOs saying they are deeply concerned about their ability to fill jobs–particularly with talent from the U.S. By failing to recruit and retain diverse employees, including those from communities and cultures often overlooked, we’re leaving so much potential untapped. More than 30% of PwC’s new hires this year were minorities. They’re incredibly talented professionals, but some of them might have been overlooked had it not been for our deliberate recruitment efforts. It’s important to remember that the more diversity we have, the greater the diversity of ideas we will have. And that’s what PwC’s clients demand.


Look Beyond the Status Quo

But we can’t put all of this on business leaders. Employees, even those just starting out, have work to do, too, if they want to get hired and make it to the executive suite. I encourage new hires to share some of their life stories and lessons with their colleagues. Many people feel uncomfortable talking about their personal experiences at work. But that’s a mistake. By letting your team know who you are, by being authentic, you create more meaningful relationships, and it’s those relationships that are essential to building a successful career in the long run. Of course skills matter. But relationships are equally important.

This became clear to me when I was working in PwC’s Dallas office early in my career and whispering in Spanish on the phone in my cubicle. One of my supervisors overheard, and told me to stop whispering and start touting my fluency in another language as a business asset. Since then, being myself–and being proud of it–has only helped me at work.

It’s also important for people coming up through their profession to look for diversity in their mentors. It’s easy to look for role models who look like you. But resist that. Actively seek out other perspectives instead of a mirror image of yourself. Someone who is different from you may be able to see the bigger picture and help you dream bigger because they don’t see the same limits or boundaries that you do.

Though challenges remain, we need to celebrate how far PwC has come. In addition to my duties as chief diversity officer, I’m an audit partner at the firm, and I talk to corporate boards all the time. I recently sat down with a corporate board member to discuss ongoing accounting work for his company, and he very quickly switched gears and asked me whether I felt supported in my job and had strong mentors advocating for me. I was a little caught off guard but glad to report that I did, and I was thrilled with the question. It shows just how much the conversation has shifted. Hopefully the makeup of corporate America will follow.

Maria Castañón Moats is the chief diversity officer at PwC.