What Obama’s learnings about diversity can teach all of us

What Obama’s learnings about diversity can teach all of us

As the first African-American president of the United States, after appointing the most diverse cabinet in history, Barack Obama might have figured he had aced the challenge to be inclusive. But in his recent memoir, he confessed that late during his first year in office, his senior adviser and long-time friend Valerie Jarrett reported deepening dissatisfaction amongst senior women in the White House.

It led him to realize he needed to pay closer attention to the experiences of women and people of colour on his staff. His senior team revolved around some brash men – Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser David Axelrod, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, and National Economic Council chair Lawrence Summers – who tended to push hard on other people’s ideas and were politically nervous about taking a strong stand on issues like immigration, abortion, and relationships between the police and minority communities.

“Those guys were combative with everybody, including one another. Knowing them as well as I did, I felt that as much as any of us growing up in America can be free of bias, they passed the test,” he writes. But they – and him – were failing because their domineering ways had left accomplished women feeling diminished, ignored, and increasingly reluctant to voice their opinions. Some had been reduced to tears as their ideas were scorned.

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It made him reconsider his own machismo and enjoyment of verbal jousting. He held an informal dinner with the women and urged them to assert themselves more in discussions, not only for their own mental health but because they were insightful and he needed to hear what they had to say to do his job well. He spoke to the senior men about how the women were feeling and the need to do better. And he was told a few months later by Ms. Jarrett interactions were improving.

It’s a reminder of how easy to miss yet explosive such behaviours can be, particularly in Type-A, work-around-the-clock cultures. His strategy of listening and speaking to everyone is important, but sometimes avoided. And as he stressed, “it’s hard to unravel patriarchy in a single dinner.”

Many organizations opt for diversity training but that has received a bad rap as too many people rebel against it, offended at being assigned to remedial education. The programs are often short and studies have found them ineffective. But a new research paper argues that we shouldn’t give up so quickly, offering some ideas for improvement.

The first is to be realistic about what training can change and what it can’t. Often organizations announce diversity training with lofty goals like “shifting our culture.” But Ivuoma Onyeador, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, Neil A. Lewis, Jr., an assistant professor of communication and social behaviour at Cornell University, and Evelyn R. Carter of Paradigm Strategy Inc. warn that truly changing an organization’s culture to make it more inclusive takes years, not hours, and requires tools beyond training sessions. Training is more likely to be successful when coupled with other interventions, such as systems that hold workers and leaders accountable for reducing bias, a well-functioning bias-response process, and networking opportunities for employees from under-represented groups.

They found that most effective diversity training programs help participants identify and reduce bias. At the end of the training, the participants are not in some way magically purified but have an awareness of bias and specific tools to act differently in the future. Often companies want to steer away from such training programs as it will make employees uncomfortable. But the research team says you need to get comfortable with discomfort, calling attention to the concerns people have over diversity and dealing with them compassionately.

Another strategy is to establish small groups of employees from different subsets of the organization to discuss their concerns. In the magazine Fast Company, Albrey Brown, head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Airtable, calls these employee resource groups the backbone of a great diversity and inclusion strategy. After speaking to 20 other leaders of diversity programs, he found the heads of employee resource groups, traditionally volunteers, are in future likely to be paid – some organizations are already doing that with cash, equity, or non-monetary perks such as career coaching. The groups have traditionally been built around networking, with providing a safe space for members the top goal. But interest is increasing in using the groups as career development hubs.

Metrics are important in this work and he found organizations breaking down goals by department and focusing on frequent, incremental progress. One emerging metric covers referral pipeline diversity. Referrals generally provide the most new hires at companies so it’s important to encourage diversity in that channel.

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Barack Obama found that good intentions aren’t enough – you need to work hard at building inclusion since so much works against it. Follow his lead.


  • A new study finds sexual harassment claims by less feminine women are perceived as less credible and the damage less psychologically harmful than claims by women seen as more feminine.
  • Resilience is a big theme today and so if you want to hire more resilient people recruiting expert John Sullivan suggests asking them to rate their soft skills without raising the issue of resilience to see if it comes up. Also ask behavioural questions about times when they were resilient and bounced back from setbacks, getting them to walk you through their resilience steps.
  • In training sessions for customer service representatives, consultant Steve Keating asks about their role, never receiving the answer he wants: “My job is to make the customer right.” He argues it’s critical to change customer service thinking from how I can show this customer they are wrong to how can I make the customer right.

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Published at Sat, 23 Jan 2021 10:00:00 +0000

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Written by Riel Roussopoulos


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