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To arrive at organizational Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, we must stand in the gap between our stated public commitments and our personal comfort.
To arrive at organizational Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, we must stand in the gap between our stated public commitments and our personal comfort. Photo: Getty.

Of Leaders and the Diversity Divide: What Happens When No One is Looking?

What happens when privacy affords us cover, when boardroom doors are closed?

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There is a growing gap in our movement toward Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, a disconnect between the emboldened organizational commitments we might make in public and the daily decisions made in more quiet spaces when fewer are privy to our deepest thoughts.

Last year, following COVID impacts, exposed racial injustices, and an economic downturn, companies made unprecedented public pivots toward workforce and social justice. From penning press releases supporting Black Lives Matter to promoting a flurry of diverse employees into well-earned leadership positions, to examining disproportionate business practices that often marginalized the underrepresented, many leaders moved toward inclusion. 

Collectively, our workforce took a firm step forward, finally addressing the ways in which institutional racism/sexism/ableism/ homophobia/xenophobia/ageism and other forms of discrimination are cemented into workforce’s structural foundation. Admittedly, we made progress.

Still, more work remains and it is complicated. It is the work that stands in the gap between public scrutiny and private decision-making. It is tucked into the corners of organizational culture. It is what happens when no one will really know, when no one is looking…

What happens when privacy affords us cover, when boardroom doors are closed? 

What happens when privacy affords us cover, when boardroom doors are closed? What happens when we must select vendors and can choose between our neighbor and that diverse supplier who has an exceptional track record but lacks a personal relationship with us? What happens when we recruit for our internship program? Do we continue to prioritize the predominantly white institutions we attended or cast a wider net and target Historically Black Colleges and Universities with programs aligned with our industry needs? When we recruit students of color, is it a nice thing to do or an intentional talent pipeline strategy?  What happens when a Latinx employee’s accent is so rich it punctuates her every word? Do we penalize her for her identity and tell her she lacks “strong communication skills”? And what about the Black (wo)man that “doesn’t smile enough”?  Do we deem their assertiveness aggression?  When filling our next board seat, do we return to our network and select a “culture fit” or do we consider an equally qualified Black or Brown leader who will not assimilate into our dominant culture but will integrate her perspective in ways that stretch our traditional thinking instead?  Further, what happens when our strongest executives who exceed productivity goals are also known to be biased, sexist, and even racist?  

To be clear, the workforce is progressing toward stronger inclusion. We must continue that movement forward.  But we must also move inward, examining the unconscious and conscious biases that drive daily decisions. To arrive at organizational Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, we must stand in the gap between our stated public commitments and our personal comfort. This is where this work lives and how we narrow the divide—by standing boldly before a mirror and examining the truth of our decisions. What we do about inclusion when no one is looking…but us.

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