Diversity Doublespeak and Discrimination

by Julie Graber | on 12 Jun 2020

If the Business Roundtable and other organizations are serious about tackling the issue of racial inequality in the US, they’re going to have to address the other D word that no one wants to mention: discrimination.

CEOs can talk a good game when it comes to diversity. They can talk about why it’s important. They can list all the ways their organizations are acknowledging different experiences and perspectives, with workshops and programs and employee resource groups, etc.

What they don’t talk about is the real problem - discrimination. In fact, I’m not sure they’re even allowed to use the word.

And therein lies the problem. Because diversity & inclusion are the ways companies make themselves feel good about all that they do for women, people of color, and other identity groups. But discrimination is why inequality continues to exist. And discrimination is why there are so few women and people of color in corporate boardrooms and executive teams.

Cheryl Wade* refers to this rhetorical focus as “diversity doublespeak.” Diversity doublespeak allows corporate leaders to acknowledge the issue - the lack of diversity - without taking responsibility for what lies beneath it - the structural racism and sexism that perpetuates inequality. It allows corporations to focus their attention on the good things they do to embrace diversity and inclusion - the programs, workshops, initiatives, etc. - while they ignore the continued existence of inequitable outcomes. The problem is the pipeline, the lack of training, the absence of mentors, for example, not that we discriminate.

But we do discriminate. Otherwise white men wouldn’t start out as 36% of entry-level professional hires but end up holding 68% of C-suite positions (McKinsey/Lean-In pipeline research). 

White men are the only group that secures a larger slice of the pie as they move from one level to the next. 

  • Men of color: are 16% of entry-level professional hires, but only 9% of C-suite executives.
  • White women: are 31% of entry-level professional hires, but only 19% of C-suite executives. 
  • Women of color: are 17% of entry-level professional hires, but only 4% of C-suite executives.

Something is wrong with the systems that perpetuate these inequities. 

And that something is discrimination. 

More diversity doublespeak won’t fix this problem. Only a frank conversation about discrimination will result in lasting change. And that conversation has to be had by those who have the power to control and change these systems - not by those who are treated unfairly as a result. 

It's time to shift the conversation from "what can we do to embrace diversity and inclusion?" to what "must we do to create a more equitable world for everyone?" 

And one of the things we must do is tackle the other D word in the room: discrimination.


*Wade, C. (2014). [Gender diversity on corporate boards: how racial politics impedes the progress in the United States](https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/pilr/vol26/iss1/4/). Pace International Law Review, Vol 26, Issue 1.

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