The invisible barrier known as the ‘glass ceiling’ has been an acknowledged hindrance to workplace diversity since the late 1970s. Yet, lack of employee diversity and the underlying systemic discrimination have critical implications for corporations, from diminished employee wellbeing to unrealized profitability. Today, after years of revelations of extreme racial and sexual misdeeds by individuals and organizations, and global responses thereto, corporate performance on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is under increasing scrutiny – both internal and external – and there is ample opportunity for improvement.
The Glass Ceiling and the DEI Response
While historically applied to women employees, the glass ceiling concept has expanded in recent decades to reflect a spectrum of diverse populations. These include disabled people, members of the LGBTQ community, BAME/BIPOC and other demographic group members who are underrepresented in corporate hierarchies based on their identities. Individual employee biases, corporate culture factors and recruitment and retention policies that inhibit the advancement of diverse employees all contribute to the glass ceiling.
Diversity, equity and inclusion policies are intended to break the glass ceiling for these underrepresented demographics, but the essence of DEI can be difficult to define and comprehend, which poses a challenge to crafting productive and measurable diversity initiatives.
Diversity is the presence of employees who represent categories of difference, including race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, socioeconomic status, religion, age, etc. Diversity is a policy goal for a growing number of corporations, but they remain a minority.
Equity is fair and impartial access for all employees to opportunities, resources and advancement in a company. Equity requires identifying and removing barriers that prevent full participation by members of underrepresented groups.
Inclusion is a corporate culture that welcomes the full participation of diverse employees, ensuring their sense of belonging in the organization and honoring their diversity.
In simple terms, DEI policies successfully deployed might resemble this scenario:A woman who is visually impaired is recruited from a college historically serving students of color, and the company intends to train her for a management position (diversity). She is introduced to a workplace with accommodations for her visual impairment in place, including braille identifiers on office spaces and accessibility technologies that provide ready access to all training materials, work products, events and any other business activities (equity). On her first day, she is greeted by an employee who gives her the grand tour of corporate headquarters. The employee has previously received a simple lesson in how to provide mobility assistance without diminishing the new hire’s independence (inclusion).
The new employee feels wanted, accommodated and welcomed, and she trusts that her employer values her and is invested in her wellbeing. This is the essence of DEI.
Corporations are investing in DEI because the benefits are numerous and stakeholders are increasingly holding companies accountable for achieving DEI goals.
"Research has identified myriad benefits of employing DEI strategies to break the glass ceiling, from improved branding to attracting high-quality candidates to discovering previously overlooked talent in-house."
One study found the outcomes of gender initiatives included improved productivity, governance norms, corporate communications, stakeholder relations, social responsibility, work ethics, creativity and innovation, customer satisfaction and financial performance 1.
Similar results are found in gender-diverse leadership in technology: better team dynamics, higher financial performance and productivity, improved problem-solving and increased innovation 2.
DEI benefits to employees are also numerous, the most profound of which is more meaningful job opportunities for employees of diverse identities. Greater gender diversity has been found to result in better problem-solving; higher employee performance ratings and pay bonuses 2; stress reduction; reduced attrition and improved cognitive, emotional and behavioral engagement 1.
While many LGBTQ employees remain closeted at work – causing absenteeism, exposure to discriminatory comments, depression and social isolation from peers and networks that could lead to advancement – DEI strategies encourage full participation. A 2018 study found that organizations that:
"cultivate climates of inclusion are a win-win for employers – they mitigate the costs of the closet and capitalize on the focus and energy that comes from people bringing their full selves to work." 3
Although the benefits of dismantling the glass ceiling are many and valuable, challenges to DEI policies are complex. The intent to ‘do good’ is often countered by dynamics as invisible as the glass ceiling itself, including decision-makers’ implicit bias (bias an employee is unaware of holding against a particular demographic) and corporations’ structural racism or misogyny. Even recruitment technologies – including resume screening by artificial intelligence programmed to disregard such identity indicators as name and university – ultimately resolve to human decisions, where bias comfortably resides.
Starbucks’ response to biased encounters with customers of color is an example of a corporation trying to improve but wielding the wrong tool. After the corporation’s most notorious case in 2018, when a white store manager had two legitimate Black customers arrested for trespassing, Starbucks swiftly decided to close all its outlets for four hours of implicit bias training for staff. Although well-intended, the decision was rebuked for its inadequacy and unlikely success. This type of training is an unproven tool for eliminating implicit bias, which is well-entrenched 4.
Additionally, Starbucks has some history of disability and racial discrimination complaints 5. Such complaints can be reflective of systemic challenges to diversity within a corporate culture. Indeed, a recent settlement of some complaints has resulted in Starbucks' dedication to invest in structural changes in its promotion process 6. To succeed, however, DEI investments require a much more comprehensive approach than a single anti-bias training, hiring a diversity recruiter or popping diverse faces on corporate accountability reports. DEI requires measurable proof of progress.
Joan C. Williams, founder of WorkLife Law and Bias Interrupters, said in a 2020 TEDx Talk, ‘To address structural racism, you need to change structures.’ She added that this requires the ‘same tools businesses use to tackle any business problem – evidence and metrics 7.’
Yet it is not a numbers game of calculating how many diversity hires can be processed in a quarter. To develop and implement DEI initiatives, corporations must dig deep into their cultures to assess their starting points and identify areas needing improvement. Companies tend not to reveal their baselines, but diversity training is a common best practice for ensuring success. For example, Accenture, with its woman CEO, has three categories of diversity training, including awareness, management and professional development 8.
While the strategies vary by company, the approach is basic. ‘Start with evidence, gather metrics to establish baselines and measure progress,’ Williams said 7. These steps are essential to DEI policies that are realistic, effective investments, and other experts agree.
Gartner, an international consultancy with a range of DEI resources (some freely available at gartner.com), has developed a tool to measure inclusion, perhaps the most nebulous of DEI goals. The Gartner Inclusion Index measures employee perceptions of seven elements of inclusion: ‘fair treatment, integrating differences, decision-making, psychological safety, trust, belonging and diversity.’ 9
Such metrics provide a critical element of any DEI strategy: the scientific data necessary to report concrete outcomes to stakeholders. Pressure from stakeholders seeking DEI progress, expanding DEI awareness and comprehension and DEI mandates are indicators that more diversity is possible. With leadership commitment and a transparent scientific approach, it is being realized, employees’ wellbeing is increasing as they break through the glass ceiling to workplaces where they know they are wanted, accommodated and honored for who they are.
Kit-Bacon Gressitt lectures in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at California State University San Marcos. Her writing appears in various news and literary publications and at kbgressitt.com.
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