From groups that teach young women of color to code to those that provide networking and professional development opportunities for groups defined by their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or other factors, there’s no shortage of efforts to increase the numbers of underrepresented people in specific sectors.
And while such initiatives and groups are admirable, many are relatively small. With diversity issues so pronounced—especially in the technology sector—can such targeted initiatives and "safe spaces" truly be effective at moving the diversity needle?
Yes, say both the people involved in these groups and those who study diversity.
"We continue to have a big challenge out there in the economy in terms of getting people who are on track, ambitious, accomplished, but are different from the established leadership type," says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, PhD, founder, and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, which conducts diversity-focused research. Not only do they have trouble breaking in, but they also tend to "stall out" mid-career, she says. Such focused initiatives can help them find and fuel opportunities.
Executive Pride was launched because of the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people who are uncomfortable coming out in the workplace as a result of bias and politics, says Travis Kelso Turner, executive director. While people may work for organizations that espouse equality, on an individual level, people may hold different beliefs. Executive Pride provides a welcoming space for people to be themselves and help each other navigate such challenges. Although the group is relatively new, launched in 2015, its key initiatives include a mentoring program that pairs young LGBTQ professionals with those who are more experienced, and advocacy for companies to be more inclusive of LGBTQ professionals.
Finding fellowship and community was also behind the launch of Blogalicious, which has grown into both a community and conference for women of color who have blogs and digital businesses. Initially, cofounder and chief curator Stacey Ferguson and a few fellow bloggers were looking for a place for bloggers of color to gather and share ideas. Today, Blogalicious has a subscriber list of more than 7,000 and an active online community of more than 3,300. More than 3,000 people have attended the group’s conferences.
"It's a safe space for you to let down your guard and be yourself, it ends up generating confidence. Through that, you're able to take that outside and make an impact," she says. Anecdotally, she says she hears from bloggers who said they wouldn't have been able to pitch their presentation or idea to a "mainstream" conference had Blogalicious not given them confidence and taught them to branch out. "That's one way I know that it's still necessary," she says.
Rachel Sklar, cofounder of The Li.st, a community of women who are working on changing the numbers of women in the tech sector, says that her proof of effectiveness is both in the interactions in her group as well as their longer-term impact.
"Some are effective. Some are not," Sklar says. Look at them like you would a charity, she says. Where is the money going? How transparent are they? What specific achievements can they point to? Those are the hallmarks of effectiveness. On The Li.st, she says dozens of women have found jobs, partners, and sponsors. One startup even found its first round of funding through the community. Having a group of like-minded people who are interested in helping each other is important to create the outcomes you want, she says.
The most effective of these groups are paying attention to the latest information on what’s working in diversity initiatives and tackling them head on. One of the key areas they can further their impact is to connect with the pipeline, says Sara Fisher Ellison, PhD, senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Economics Department, who studied how workplace diversity can help the bottom line. Companies interested in diversity actively seek out different sources of candidates.
Accountability from the top is also essential for long-term impact, says Eden B. King, PhD, lab director of the Workplace Diversity at George Mason University. She says leadership buy-in is essential for "overcoming bias across decision-making processes—not just those when you’re hiring people, but also bias in promotions and compensation," have better track records.
The Center for Talent Innovation found that people who have sponsors who are actively engaged in guiding and advocating for them are 20% more likely to be promoted than those who do not. A separate study from Stanford University found that referrals had a surprising amount of impact on the chances for promotions for African-American workers. Leadership support also leads to greater inclusion, which contributes to a more welcoming environment, King says.
To get that leadership support, Turner launched the Pride Inside program, which works with leadership at companies nationwide to support LGBTQ equality. Turner says nearly 1,000 executives have signed his pledge, including those from household names like Target and Airbnb.
And while these groups may individually be small efforts, dismissing them as insignificant is a mistake, King says. They’re an essential part of fostering more diverse workplaces.
"Any one program or initiative is going to be insufficient. There is no silver bullet. There are a million small things that we can be doing, and I think each of those small things, each of those drops in the bucket, can fill the bucket in the end," King says.