“Women and people of color get chances, while others get opportunities,” Tiffany R. Warren, the chief diversity officer and SVP of Omnicom Group, said during the Fast Company Innovation Festival last week. “Other people get open doors; we get a crack in a window.”
During a year that has seen the infamous Google memo and sexual harassment allegations across both the tech and entertainment industries, that certainly rings true. It’s obvious we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to inclusivity in the workplace, which is why the business case for diversity feels like the most compelling way to incentivize reluctant founders and executives.
“It’s not even just good business; it’s the future of your company. It really is that dire now when you look at how divisional the world is,” Warren said.
Women and people of color have long known this to be true. Diverse workforces are good for business, and there is ample data to back up that claim. And in cases where executives—particularly those who are white and male—may not buy into the social imperative, they may at least concede that it’s a savvy business decision.
“You want your company to be reflective of who your audience is,” said Ryan Williams, the cofounder and president of diversity recruiting startup Jopwell. “We feel armed by that, and we can turn it into a business conversation. Even just framing it as, “Here’s a way we want to make your company more competitive” impacts who we’re able to speak to, and the types of conversations we’re able to have. It’s entirely centered on the bottom line. That’s been our approach in terms of making people take this conversation seriously.”
But diversity is still seen as a “nice-to-have” in many circles, data be damned. Less than a quarter of tech founders believe diversity can help their bottom line: A survey from last year found that only 23% believed a company’s financial performance was positively impacted by its the diversity of its workforce.
That’s why Cindy Whitehead, the founder and CEO of The Pink Ceiling—a venture that is part VC fund, part consulting firm—believes we can’t rely solely on data to make the case for diversity. Instead, she says, we need more examples of women and people of color who have had huge successes.
“What I worry about is that we have stat after stat after stat that confirms it, and I think we have selective hearing,” Whitehead said. “We can talk in metrics, and it’s important because you’d like to frame the discussion as, ‘This is how you win.’ But I think giving visibility to more than just Oprah as that definition of success and self-made . . . I think that really changes it.”
The emotional case for diversity may be more pertinent as you near the C-suite, where the gap is the widest in spite of studies that claim female representation at the leadership level correlates with higher revenue and shareholder returns. After all, if women and people of color are less likely to get in the door, there is little room for them to move up the ranks. And as Warren points out, the few that do find their way in may be hesitant to pull others up alongside them.
“There’s sometimes a mentality when you get up there—I’ve seen it and have been a victim of it—of ‘I’m going to keep it to myself,'” Warren said. “‘I’m going to lose it. I’m not going to make the ladder longer and bring other people up with me.'”
It can be hard to shake that feeling, she said, since nobody wants to mentor someone who could take their job. One reason women and people of color might get competitive is because a paucity of diversity in leadership makes it difficult for them to see how their career might progress. Cue the imposter syndrome: If there’s only one woman in your company’s C-suite, chances are you might think there isn’t room for more than one.
“I do want more diversity officers and diversity champions in advertising because it’s a big industry, and there’s not that many of us doing it,” Warren said, referencing her own line of work. “I’m always telling my story and exhaustively saying, ‘This is how I did it,’ so people can avoid my land mines and get to where I got faster. That’s how real progress happens.”