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The Real Reason Corporate America’s Diversity Initiatives Fail

January 26, 2017, 1:00 AM UTC
Businesspeople listening to presentation in office building
Businesspeople listening to presentation in office building
Photograph by poba—Getty Images

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How can you play a role in advancing workplace equality?” is written by Elise James-Decruise, vice president of the New Marketing Institute at MediaMath.

I lead a diverse, global team of 29 people in 16 different countries, which brings me face-to-face with the importance of having an open dialogue about equality in the workplace. Here are a few tactics that can help open up the discussion and effect change at your organization:

Create equal opportunities

It’s important to remember that while the terms are often used interchangeably, diversity and equality mean different things. Diversity is recognizing our differences while embracing them, whether it’s at work or in society at large. Equality, on the other hand, refers to fairness and equal treatment, where everyone has the same opportunities.

Tell your staff that if everyone doesn’t have similar opportunities for professional development, career pathing, and access to resources, you’re not fostering equality. Thus, you are ticking the diversity box on paper, but not making a true effort to nurture and empower each individual to their best potential.

Effect organizational change

Most organizational change efforts fail, often because executives don’t get enough institutional buy-in for their initiatives and ideas. If you build relationships in advance and have a strong track record, executives are more likely to support you in making changes.

When I joined MediaMath in 2012, I made it my mission to foster a strong relationship with our CEO. What I was trying to build—a comprehensive training program for employees, clients, and partners that honored their differences in gender, culture, and career background—had never been done before at the company. Through sparking regular communication, building trust, and showing passion for my mission, the CEO became my biggest champion and was instrumental in helping me nurture the New Marketing Institute (NMI) into the global unit it is today.

It’s important to show your executive sponsors that being an equal workplace ultimately adds value to the business. It can ultimately help you innovate and bring in unique perspectives.

Initiate equality programs

Equality-based initiatives can foster and promote teamwork, compassion, inclusion, and respect both within your company and with business partners. At NMI, we created the Marketing Engineer Program in 2014 to provide career opportunities in the programmatic marketing space for individuals across all backgrounds. These individuals work with different teams and are then offered jobs within our own company or through partners and clients. This fosters equality by giving individuals equal access to job skills training in digital marketing, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, or career background.

Other companies might consider internal initiatives such as having a high-performance program for talented employees of female or minority backgrounds, connecting women in leadership roles to younger female employees for mentorship, and holding on-site professional development trainings and team summits at times that accommodate working parents.


Meet each person where they are

We can’t approach equality with a broad brush. For instance, almost the same number of women without children opt out of promotions as working mothers—55% to 58%, respectively—according to findings from a study by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co. This is an issue that goes beyond gender and parenthood to the very heart of what we expect out of leaders today.

At NMI, we talk about “meeting the learner where they are.” This means understanding each person’s needs and motivations based on their particular situation. Ask yourself questions like: Do employees in other regions have access to the same resources in their native languages? Are managers giving their employees access to opportunities in a way that is culturally relevant to their background? Is everyone in every office onboarded in the same way? Does everyone, from a junior coordinator to a C-level executive, have access to professional development opportunities fitting their particular career phase?

We live this idea of “meeting the learner where they are” at NMI by offering anyone who goes through our program—whether an employee or a client—localized content, the ability to tune into courses online or in-person, and different course levels to meet their specific area of expertise. There’s also a culture of information-sharing, whether via our internal wiki or email, or in person, so no one is being deprived of resources or learning opportunities.