What All the New Diversity Programs and Initiatives Tell You About How We’re Defining the Problem

by Julie Graber | on 30 Jun 2020

Several years ago, a course on gender mainstreaming introduced me to a way of analyzing policies and programs that I continue to find helpful. The tool is Carol Bacchi’s “What’s The Problem Represented to Be?” (WPR), and I have found many ways to apply it far beyond its original public policy focus. 

Bacchi, a political scientist and feminist theorist, developed WPR as a way to look at how problems are defined within proposed or adopted public policies. Bacchi argues that problems don’t exist in a vacuum, but that policies or programs actually define problems in very specific ways. So if this is the policy, what does it say about how have we defined the problem?

I am reminded of Bacchi’s tool as companies scramble to find ways to address racism through their organizations. So far, I’ve seen companies announce:

  • the addition of employee resource groups for specific demographic groups
  • the appointment of diversity and inclusion officers
  • donations to social justice organizations
  • more/mandatory bias training
  • funding for scholarship programs and expanded internship programs
  • mentoring programs 

And much more. 

In each case, these solutions infer something about how the organization is defining the problem (and presumably what they think it will take to move the needle). Baachi provided a relevant example in a 2016 journal article when she noted that “policies that promote training for women as a means to increase their numbers in positions of influence implicitly represent the problem to be women’s lack of training.”*

If training programs were the solution to getting more women on boards, the numbers should be sky-rocketing. 

Not so much. 

So far, I’m not seeing anything that defines the problems we face any differently than they have been in the past. And we all know the often-quoted who-knows-who-really-said-it definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. 

I want to see organization committing to dismantling their culture - pulling it apart and understanding how their cultures create environments where women and people of color don’t move beyond a certain point in the pipeline. Cultures that create mommy tracks and the gender pay gap. Cultures that give white men a straight shot at roles that lead to line positions and C-suite potential and sidetrack women and people of color into support functions that rarely lead to CEO. 

I want to see a company get brutally honest about why its C-suite looks the way it does coupled with the intent to fix it. And ensuring that it looks different in the future through the internal pipeline (not just hiring top talent from outside the organization). 

Maybe there’s an organization out there that has committed to a radical, innovative approach vs. more of the same. If you come across one, let me know!

*Problematizations in Health Policy: Questioning How “Problems” Are Constituted in Policies, SAGE Open April-June 2016: 1–16 2016 DOI: 10.1177/2158244016653986 sgo.sagepub.com; retrieved on September 20, 2016 here 

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