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Diversity and Its Discontents

Diverse workplaces require emotional maturity, and that means confronting “rankism.”

Illustration by Lars Leetaru
For all the progress that has supposedly been achieved in promoting diversity in the workplace, mounting evidence shows that big companies aren’t making progress as fast or as effectively as they could. I first became aware of this last May, when I began hearing that women and people of color in responsible positions in large corporations, despite the extra efforts made to recruit and retain them, were increasingly disinclined to stay. Fortune recently ran a cover story on the same phenomenon: “It’s not that women can’t get high-level jobs,” wrote reporter Patricia Sellers. “Rather, they’re choosing not to.”

I also heard some skepticism about conventional diversity training, even from its practitioners. Frederick A. Miller, president and CEO of the Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, one of the United States’ longest-standing consulting firms focusing on diversity and inclusion, recently compared typical diversity training to etiquette class.

“I know a company where someone recently called a black person an ape of some kind,” Mr. Miller told me, “so they’re sending him to an ‘awareness’ course. But all they’re really doing is simply training him not to use that word.”

Perhaps the most compelling recent indicator of discontent with the diversity movement was the release of several academic studies challenging the business case. It turns out that teams with varied gender and ethnic memberships do not necessarily perform better than more homogeneous teams, or even reach diverse customers more effectively. “If you were to draw a bell curve of performance,” said Harvard Business School professor David Thomas at a conference in Boston last fall, “you’d find the more diverse teams at the two tails of distribution: either the very high end, or the low end. Homogeneous groups occupy the middle.”

One might conclude from such data that there is a fading future for women and people of color in the workplace. Notwithstanding a few outliers like Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard and Richard Parsons at Time Warner, management is still dominated by white, relatively upper-class, technocratically minded men — men with “executive-style hair,” as Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams calls them.

But if you came to that conclusion, you’d be wrong for at least two reasons. First, the demographic realities are shifting, particularly in the U.S., in ways that haven’t yet been widely recognized. As Mr. Miller points out, the American baby boom generation will start reaching retirement age around 2008. By 2012 or so, unless women and people of color step in en masse, there will not be enough educated managers to fill the shoes of departing executives.

Second, a new kind of argument is emerging about the reason women and people of color might feel unwelcome, and the reason some diverse teams perform better than others. This argument is cropping up in several places, but it is most completely articulated in a book called Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (New Society Publishers, 2003). The author is Robert Fuller, a physicist and former Oberlin College president who spent most of the 1980s setting up informal contacts between Soviet and American scientists, and who has now resurfaced as a hopeful instigator of what he calls a dignitarian movement.

Perhaps this new perspective is just what companies need to finally appreciate the full value of diversity in creating high-performance workplaces, and the necessity of making diversity the top business priority it absolutely needs to be.

Rank as Value
To Dr. Fuller, racism and sexism are simply two symptoms (out of many) of ingrained human tendencies to ignore, abuse, and exploit other people, particularly in highly stratified hierarchical structures like corporations. Until we crack that habit, which Dr. Fuller calls rankism, he says women and people of color will have difficulty fitting in at most companies. He believes rankism makes people feel undervalued and underused, and alienates them before they ever have a chance to make their mark.

 
 
 
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