Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School. Every Tuesday at 7:00 PM EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community and the private self (mind, body and spirit).
On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with David Thomas, Dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, about the state of diversity and inclusion in corporate America. The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.
Stew Friedman: How did you first get into this topic of diversity in corporate America?
David Thomas: I wasinitially interested in three topics: how organizations change, how people manage their careers, and the influence of race on opportunities. In the early 80s I was studying the dynamics of mentoring in large corporations under differing circumstances – mentoring within the same race and across race, mentoring with the same gender and across gender. This was in the context of an organization trying to change its culture. It was so far ahead of its peers. I remained passionate about this for leaders, society, and for organizations.
SF: How wereyou personally shaped by mentoring relationships?
DT: I grew up in Kansas City MO, born in 1950s; a very segregated time. At younger than five years old when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “President.” Only later did I say I wanted to be “the first black President.” It’s interesting to say this now, as I’m sitting blocks from the White House which is occupied by our first black President. What’s interesting is that at five I wanted to be President, but only later, with the realization of my group identity, did I say “the first black President.” Later, when I was not yet eight, I said “I’m going to be a lawyer.” By then I’d realized a black man couldn’t be President. A lawyer was the next best. I saw the civil rights movement – preachers and lawyers. One went to jail, one got them out of jail. I wanted to be a lawyer.
SF: You wanted to liberate people.
DT: Yes, I wanted to try to create change, to make the world a better place. And I found my way into organizational behavior.
SF: How did you go from wanting to be a lawyer to the field of organizational behavior?
DT: In college I was a student leader around black identity in black community. At Yale, I studied the African movement in 1970s and stumbled on an organization behavior course relevant to student leadership work. I realized these were concept and tools that could change the world. There’d be lots of lawyers but few that had knowledge to make organizations better. So I went to grad school at Columbia and then back to Yale.
SF: You’ve been an observer of race, diversity, inclusion in organizations for decades — what has changed and was hasn’t?
DT: What has changed is that the gates of opportunity have opened up in a way so that no child can say that anything is impossible in the way that it was for me when I was a little kid; at that time it was not possible for a black kid to aspire to be President. That’s the positive. If you are black you can be President, a CEO, a senator, a CFO, a Corporate Board member. But still, when we look at the Fortune 250 there are only five black CEOs and the number of African Americans on Boards of Directors has been stagnant. The percent of African Americans in these elite ranks have remained about the same for two decades. There’s a sense that opportunity is not expanding and yet lack of representation is still connected to stereotypes. There is a great body of work on unconscious bias. I think this is the explanation, not intentional discrimination.
SF: Unconscious bias – define that for our listeners. It’s more pernicious than explicit racism.
DT: Unconscious bias is the automatic reactions we have to particular people or demographic groups that are out of our awareness and that don’t necessarily represent what our intentions are. The major research findings are, for example, that people are more likely to associate women to family and men to career. People more quickly and easily make those associations. What happens is that if boss has to send a subordinate on the road and both subordinates – a man and a woman — had a baby recently, the boss is more likely to walk over to male to assign him to being on the road of for two weeks. Unconsciously the boss has concluded that the man would be more likely to be open to this assignment. Fast forward two years, and these gateway assignments add up, the she’s lost out and he got the experience. She wasn’t even given the choice.
SF: You’re saying the manager didn’t intend to discriminate but his actions had a discriminatory effect. So what are we doing to deal with gender and race stereotypes in corporations and elsewhere?
DT: First, we know that because the expression of these biases is not intentional, if people can slow down they can become aware of the bias. For instance, the manager could walk in, describe the opportunity to both subordinates, and assess their willingness to take the opportunity. Then it’s more conscious choice. The boss is more likely to make the choice based on task factors versus based on an unconscious set of assumptions.
SF: So, this is a more mindful approach to inclusion and diversity.
DT: Yes, you have to work with leaders and managers to help them become more mindful. It starts with acknowledging and then taking responsibility for the fact that they’re not immune to bias. Companies that are unwilling to accept that they may be susceptible to some kinds of bias are a problem.
SF: So how do you address this? People believe and say “I’m not racist, I’m not sexist, so why blame me?” How do you break into this?
DT: There’s a great tool, a self-administered test to assess whether you possess unconscious bias.. The Harvard Implicit bias test examines issues such as race, gender, skin color, age, gay straight, religion. You can see where your own susceptibilities lie. We all have biases that have been socialized into us. There’s been real success with students and with companies. The self-administered test opens people up to the fact that they’re not immune. But also we are not destined to perpetuate biases. Once they’re aware they have choices about how they act.
SF: We’re all products of our culture and local familial heritage. To evolve we have to address these unconscious biases. What’s the most import step for schools and companies to be more inclusive and fairer?
DT: Wittingly or unwittingly we exhibit bias. Leaders need to take responsibility to create a diverse and inclusive workplace. I’m the chief diversity officer because I’m the CEO, I’m the Dean. You have to be willing to change processes that create unearned privilege or hindrances for groups of people. For example, a finance company used credit scores to help select employees. Because of differences in wealth, people of color have less wealth, so using a credit score perpetuates inequality. The company did away with using that criteria and used others related to the work. And, they did an experiment and found no relationship between credit scores and employ performance. Also credit scores go up with stable employment.
SF: Using the credit score as an entry requirement perpetuated the structural inequality. So, what does the future hold?
DT: I’m hopeful. I see many companies that are reinvigorating and reinvesting in diversity and inclusion. I am most concerned about unconscious bias in small and medium size companies, especially in tech companies. And tech is where the future lies. In silicon valley African Americans and Latinos are woefully lacking. Women, too.
David Thomas, Dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, is a recognized leader in the field of diversity in the workplace and author of Breaking Through: the Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America. To learn more about his ideas follow him on Twitter @ProfThomas.