Have Diversity and Inclusion Become Dirty Words?

“Window dressing.” That’s what it was called in the 1970s and 1980s, during the first decades after I launched Black Enterprise nearly 48 years ago. The term defined token efforts by corporations, led and governed exclusively by white males, to appear to embrace African Americans in their organizations as executives and vendors, without providing genuine or permanent access to opportunities, advancement, and decision-making roles. The idea was to have enough black faces and women with impressive titles associated with the organization to make them look good, without actually requiring the organization itself to change.

Fast-forward to the present, and not much has changed—which is somewhat perplexing to me. Unlike decades ago, when corporate leaders hid behind the concepts of “meritocracy” and “shareholder value” as reasons to defend the status quo of predominantly white male leadership, we now have overwhelming evidence that companies that actively and intentionally pursue diversity throughout their organizations outperform those that do not. The idea that practicing diversity runs contrary to running a successful business and delivering shareholder value should have long been put to rest.

Yet, we are still having the same conversations and fighting the same battles about diversity and the meaningful inclusion of African Americans, and black women in particular, in 2018 as in 1978. In fact, as of this moment, corporate America has regressed. Despite “valuing diversity” being a part of the standard script of the 21st century CEO, the term “diversity and inclusion” are treated as dirty words, and their practice often a nuisance to corporate leaders and management.

You don’t have to dig very deep to see how little progress is being made in corporate America, despite the “window” dressing of high-profile, highly publicized appointments here and there. The idea that black people and women should have pay equity with white males with comparable experience and credentials in an organization continues to remain beyond the comprehension of leadership in corporate America, in practically every company and industry. As a result, African Americans remain underrepresented in practically every industry, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, and from Main Street to Hollywood.

Black women get the shortest end of this stick, as calls for pay equity and causes such as the #MeToo Movement too often benefit white women while leaving women of color behind, whether in Hollywood, on Wall Street, or on Main Street. Tellingly, a Time magazine cover featuring the #MeToo Movement as its Person of the Year somehow failed to include the founder of the movement, Tarana Burke, an African American woman we featured along with Black Girls Code Founder Kimberly Bryant on the January/February 2018 cover of Black Enterprise. An earlier Los Angeles Times’ Envelope magazine cover story on women in Hollywood also completely overlooked African American women.

Also, despite a recent spate of high-profile board appointments, African Americans represent only about 9% of all corporate directors, with black women at less than 5%.

News flash to corporate CEOs and directors: That post-racial, gender-equitable, global marketplace you seem to think you’re operating in is a myth—it does not exist. Unfortunately, racism and gender bias still run rampant throughout your organizations, and it is leadership’s job—your job—to do something about it. It’s not enough to talk about diversity and inclusion as a core value of your company, you actually have to embrace it and intentionally practice it, to make it happen—beyond the appointment of the token first black executive or director. It is not about it being the “right thing to do,” rather it’s what is best for the organization, and American economic competitiveness as a whole.