The Many Dimensions of Diversity

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Monday, December 6, 2021
Photo by iStock/fizkes
Michelle Gethers-Clark of Visa explores why efforts toward diversity and inclusion need to be integrated and global.

The pandemic forced universities and corporations to think about challenges such as how to build diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in a world where work will continue to be remote,” says Michelle Gethers-Clark, chief diversity officer and head of corporate responsibility for digital payment company Visa. “It also highlighted the inequities of society. These challenges are not going to go away.”

Gethers-Clark recently made these observations at a meeting of AACSB’s Innovation Committee, at which participants discussed the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). Clark offered a corporate perspective on the issue, drawing on her time with Visa, her 20 years with American Express, and her experience as CEO of the United Way of Greater Greensboro, North Carolina.

During her presentation, she noted that, as businesses become more global, executives are realizing that they must understand and value diversity among their employees as well as their customers. And they’re looking to business schools to find the next generation of leaders who understand how to lead DEIB initiatives. Drawn from her remarks at the event, this article offers her thoughts on six interrelated topics.

On Seeing People as They Are

Business schools want to talk about products, services, and the other drivers of business. But the reality, as we all know, is that when all the decisions rest with one kind of people, we get one kind of outcome.

We can have a different outcome, and more profitability, if we use the collective power of multiple kinds of voices. According to a recent study from McKinsey, when 30 percent of the people at a company identify as diverse, the profitability of those companies is 36 percent higher compared to their peer groups. And yet, the U.S. still has some of the most segregated schools, communities, and companies in the world.

One problem is that we often treat diversity as one-dimensional. We think about people as Black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor. Instead, we need to embrace the intersectionality of individuals. People might look at me and say, “Oh, she’s a Black woman who’s a chief diversity officer.” But I’m also a mother, a Christian, a mature woman, and a product of generational poverty. The box you would put me in might not be the box I would put myself in. We need to learn to value people based on how they want to be valued.

On Learning From Each Other

At Visa, we believe that diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging strategies have to be integrated and global. We believe in communities of practice and shared interests. We believe that we have to learn from each other.

I have colleagues in Singapore, Dubai, the U.K., Latin America, and North America, and the regional issues we face are unique. At the same time, we are all part of the human race. My colleagues in Denver can learn from what is happening in Dubai. We have a constant exchange of ideas, and we take a hub-and-spoke approach to centralizing best practices and deploying them throughout the company.

We believe that diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging strategies have to be integrated and global. We believe that we have to learn from each other.

At Visa, we understand that equitable access is a vital component of economic mobility. Our employees around the world are thinking about what’s happening in factories, what’s happening on farms, and what’s happening in embassies, restaurants, and bars. We are focused on financial inclusion so that everyone can participate fully. We don’t want to push our products just to the top 20 percent of wage earners. We believe we’ve got to include everyone everywhere. This means we have to show up everywhere.

On Producing Inclusive Leaders

I invite business schools to think about the value proposition of not driving everyone to a consulting firm. We need business graduates—people with great minds, great hearts, and great heads—in factories and on farms, as well. Business schools must produce inclusive leaders who are thinkers and doers. Today’s executives have to show up differently in this global and hybrid workplace.

For this reason, business schools must ask a number of important questions: How can we produce active listeners? How do we make sure business school graduates are willing to be followers as well as leaders? How do we embrace intersectionality? How do we leverage technology? How do we ensure our students have global perspectives? And most of all, how do we teach them to live inclusively?

We have to knit a common thread of DEIB into every classroom. We can’t view this as a standalone topic and teach it on the side as something secondary to the core curriculum. Inclusion has the power to be a critical success factor for corporate and economic growth. As we’re talking about income statements or mergers and acquisitions, we have to think about DEIB at the same time.

I submit to you that business schools need to be active in business cases and business labs, that they need to move from being think tanks to do tanks. And they need to take on corporate partners that are action-oriented and that are undertaking research and development on DEIB.

On the Bias Inherent to Standardization

I also submit to you that all the standardizations—the GMAT tests and the lecture formats—are hurting and excluding certain groups of people. I’m not asking business schools to drop standardized tests or change their admission criteria. But I want to plant a seed that suggests that standardization has a bias. Business schools have to be careful of elitism and exclusionary tactics that they’re not even conscious of. They need to start demanding inclusion, and then they need to develop a shared purpose across the entire sector. This is about equitable access.

What we’ve done with the torch of DEIB is use it to poke people and blame people. That’s a mistake. I blame no one for my humble beginning in generational poverty because of slavery. Instead, I ask that society open the doors that will allow me to be my best self without taking into account my race, my socioeconomic status, my start in life, my faith, my hair, or my sexuality.

I’m not asking business schools to drop standardized tests or change their admission criteria. But I want to suggest that standardization has a bias.

We have to have uncomfortable conversations about race because no nation has ever made any progress without people being uncomfortable. In the United States, we have to embrace our stormy beginning as a nation in order to move forward.

We hide behind standardization, but we don’t remember that we got the standard by using a biased sample. We have to have these conversations, but in ways that don’t harm each other.

On the Need for the Right Resources

An attendee at this meeting asked what kinds of resources should be provided to support DEIB efforts both in corporate settings and at universities. Since the murder of George Floyd, a lot of organizations have been identifying Black professionals and saying to them, “Go help us be diverse!”

But institutions can’t expect diversity efforts to be carried on the backs of a few Black and brown people. Visa has 21,000 employees spread around the world in markets where the headcounts of the citizens are in the billions. Diversity professionals need the resources that will allow us to make meaningful differences. We need measurement systems and reporting systems. We need to have artificial intelligence systems that show us trend lines, so that instead of saying, “These are the numbers,” we can offer ideas and recommendations.

A lack of diversity is a legacy that in some cases has existed for a hundred years. If companies want to change that, they have to empower and provide resources to the role and the person. Companies also have to make sure people in diversity roles are reporting to the leaders—the presidents and CEOs—instead of being placed somewhere lower in the organization where they cannot lift their voices high enough.

On Our Collective Well-Being

Finally, one of the presenters at this meeting mentioned that 130,000 people had expressed interest in a certificate program in DEIB. I submit to you that there are billions of people interested in that topic. That’s because it is about our collective well-being. It is about our unique identity and being valued wherever we go.

If the world is borderless and our intersectionality is countless, how do we globalize that? How do we operationalize diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging so we can drive both societal and business benefits? Those are the questions we need to answer.

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