Jennifer Brown is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, author and diversity and inclusion expert. She is a passionate social equality advocate committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by more than a decade consulting to Fortune 500 companies, she creates a compelling case for leadership to embrace the opportunity that diversity represents along with empowering advocates at all levels to find their voice, and be a driving force in creating more enlightened organizations.
We asked her to provide advice to organizations who are striving for a more diverse and inclusive culture.
Q: Why is the awareness of and proactive nature towards diversity and inclusion so necessary for organizations right now in this day and age? What is the cost of not focusing on this topic?
Jennifer: The issue is being forced by changes in the workforce. Generation Y and Millennials will be the majority in the workplace by 2020, and they hold certain values—one of which is diversity and inclusion. If they’re entering a company that isn’t speaking about this topic and backing it up with action and commitment, it breaks trust between them and their employer.
Most companies we work with struggle to attract and retain people and women of color. In a world that is diversifying so quickly, these organizations need to be innovative and flexible in order to resonate with the marketplace.
Q: Why is there often a resistance to this kind of change, or even discussion, in the workplace?
Jennifer: The discussion has historically stemmed from compliance, legal and HR and is focused on mistakes or negative consequences of organizational decision making, policies or actions implemented by a particular leader or manager. This leads people to think that they’re in trouble, versus opening up a conversation about how people want to be engaged in an inclusive and innovative culture that allows them to thrive.
Resistance to embracing diversity stems from an incorrect assumption that somebody needs to lose power in order to give others power and create a diverse workforce. The reality is diverse teams generate more innovative results and visibly diverse leadership attracts more diverse talent to an organization.
Q: How have microaggressions, microinequities, and unconscious bias replaced what people normally think of as exclusion or discrimination?
Jennifer: At this point, people often understand what is overtly illegal, and there is a general awareness about what to say and what not to say in meetings, for example. I think that the #MeToo movement has shown us that overt harassment is still a reality. But, more often than not, the dynamics of exclusion are often subtler.
We think of ourselves as well-meaning and not overtly discriminating, but discrimination can take the shape of small and seemingly insignificant decisions and behaviors. For example, no eye contact in a meeting, or wanting to interview certain people and not others. Often, we don’t know that these are biased decisions until they’re brought to our attention, which can perpetuate inequality in a company. On the flipside, the person experiencing discrimination is left feeling confused and powerless to do anything.
Q: What are the outdated tactics of diversity and inclusion that organizations should drop?
Jennifer: I don’t think organizations should do unconscious bias training unless there is also training that specifies inclusive behaviors. Far too often, we raise awareness and explain the science, but leave leaders in a negative place, which is disempowering. We have to take it beyond the training classroom and create an opportunity for people to step out of their bubble. We need to develop different relationships through mentoring and sponsoring programs.
Another habit we have is leading with the business case for diversity and inclusion and explaining why it’s important using data to show how it can improve a company’s bottom line. But the business case is not the only tool in a D&I practitioner’s toolbox—nor the most persuasive tool. For example, storytelling has always created a lot of “aha” moments and is one of the most powerful tools to create an understanding of the impact of bias of microaggression that we have at our disposal.
Q: How does mentoring in the workplace (reverse mentoring, mentoring circles, etc.) and more specifically formal mentoring programs combat exclusivity, isolation and discrimination?
Jennifer: Many leaders don’t have a lot of exposure, if any, to those with different identities and life experiences because the numbers are so poor in terms of representation. Intentional, formal and one-on-one programs that pair people that would never have met or had the opportunity to get to know each other to in order to give them the opportunity to understand each other’s stories on a personal level are critical. They put non-traditional leaders in front of people with power and decision-making authority, and can literally bring attention to a new pipeline of talent.
Q: How do organizations measure success within D&I initiatives?
Jennifer: There are a couple ways: They start by understanding their workforce composition and they look at the pay gaps, because you always have to start with a baseline. Next, they develop a strategy that covers a period of months and years, and identify goals to change that representation—determining which kinds of training, mentoring, sponsoring, and recruiting practices are needed to be employed to do that.
Companies also figure out data through company’s surveys with questions like, “Do you feel like you belong here? Do you feel like you have equal access to career opportunities?” Again, a goal can be set around improving these metrics year over year.
Q: How can technology enable progression within D&I efforts?
Jennifer: My favorite technology I’ve seen developed is anti-biasing technology. That means that there is or will soon be artificial intelligence that can be employed to scrub everything from gendered job descriptions and advertisements to specific words in performance reviews that have been shown to perpetuate negative stereotypes about certain demographic groups. There is also a mansplaining app that tracks who does the most speaking in meetings and can help team leaders sharpen their observation of exclusionary dynamics.
Technology like this will quantify what a lot of us have been saying for a long time in a new way, and give us concrete ways to accelerate our knowledge and ability to improve.
Q: How do organizations remember to include the “I” in D&I?
Jennifer: If diversity is the who and the what in terms of measurements, inclusion is really the how. How do we attract and keep that diversity? It has less to do with counting and more to do with behaviors. And it’s a little bit more difficult to define because it’s not based on, for example, HR data. But I think the best way to capture it, is that it is still data, it’s just a different kind of data. It’s the kind of data that shows up in engagement surveys and can be gathered in things like focus groups through a company’s employee resource groups or networks. It’s often qualitative data about the experience of working in the company from the perspective of a minority. This information should be fed back to leaders at all levels on a consistent basis so that they can adjust their management style, challenge their blind spots and more proactively ensure others feel welcomed, valued, respected and heard. The best way to describe inclusion is taking our cue from others’ experiences and supporting them in the way that they want to be supported.
Q: Do you have an example of a company that has used mentoring to initiate growth in D&I with the organization?
Jennifer: I wrote a white paper on this topic paper in collaboration with the bank of New York Mellon. It’s called Reversing the Generation Equation. The program often places millennial talent in a mentoring position and flips the hierarchy. The executives in the report say this has been an informative experience to see the workplace through the eyes of their mentor, while condensing the organizational hierarchy to allow millennial talent to feel more empowered. The result has been greater retention amongst the millennial mentors than for a similar control group at the firm.