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Sallie Krawcheck: Why Corporate America Will Never ‘Get’ Diversity

While we women have been leaning in, knowing our worth, asking for more, and following every other strategy that promises to bring us workplace equality, diversity at major U.S. corporations has been going…sideways. At best.

I guess we’ll just have to keep at it. Redouble our efforts. Maybe re-triple them.

Or maybe we should all just finally admit that corporate America just doesn’t get it—doesn’t truly, deeply get it.

Maybe the better results that come from increased gender diversity just aren’t enough to get men—who remain mostly in charge—to change the workplace. Maybe the higher ROE, lower risk, greater employee and customer engagement, and improved innovation isn’t enough. Maybe the 63% better returns that First Round Capital calculated it has earned by investing in gender-diverse leadership teams just isn’t enough.

But you have to admit: It all sounds pretty good. So, what’s the disconnect?

Here’s my theory: We tend to talk about the advancement of women as a macro issue—something to be tackled by corporations, industries, society. But in reality, so much of it comes down to the micro. Let’s start with bosses.

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Over the course of my career, I’ve had bosses who supported and promoted me, and I’ve had bosses who have fired or re-org’ed me out. Yet I’ve been the same person the whole time—and, I have to note, my business results were actually better under the bosses who ousted me.

Pretty much every professional woman has her share of stories of the bad boss (or bosses) she’s worked for. Not that those bosses are always monsters; it can even be something as simple as a male manager with a stay-at-home wife. Research shows that those gentlemen tend to view women in the workplace less favorably and are less likely to promote them.

I’ve worked for those types of bosses. I even worked for one who was in an arranged marriage; he didn’t even bring his wife to social events to which spouses were invited. Think he was comfortable with strong women in the workplace? Not so much.

Another micro factor: us. In my experience, even the most well meaning and diversity-positive individuals are, let’s face it, implicitly drawn to working with people like themselves. There are a host of reasons for this, but one is that we believe we understand them better. That’s a reason that men tend to be promoted based on their “potential”—because the male boss can project that the candidate will be successful, based on his own experience—while women are more likely to promoted based on their experience.

Senior managers, meanwhile, have been taught to give our management team the elbow room to make their own decisions; business schools tell us to build a meritocracy and to judge our executives on their results. Yet that freedom can hamstring our ability to build a diverse organization.

This paradox was thrown into sharp relief for me a few months ago at Ellevest. Make no mistake: Building a diverse team is so important to us that it’s one of our company’s core values. The eye-opener occurred when my co-founder informed me of an imminent hire by one of our teams. The group had run a rigorous interview process and ended up with two strong candidates: Candidate A, who was unlike most of the team in any number of ways—beginning with her mohawk. And Candidate B, who is a lot like the team members we already have in place.

My co-founder said the hiring team liked both candidates a great deal; in fact, if they had to put percentages on it, they were 48% for Candidate A and 52% for Candidate B.

My view? At the very least, that’s a rounding error, driven by our greater comfort with Candidate B. And it’s likely much more than that: a strong “buy” signal for Candidate A, given her difference from our team. So, let’s hire Candidate A and continue to drive greater diversity.

My partner’s view? Gotta let your managers manage. They know how important diversity is to our company, and this was the choice they made with that knowledge. If we overruled them, they would feel disempowered; they might not feel that they had as much “skin in the game” if Candidate A failed.

Let’s put aside that the decision on Candidate A or Candidate B for a moment. Assuming we take it as a given that people outside of the majority have to be “better” in order to have a chance of breaking through, the question becomes: How much better?

Those of us attempting to launch new products and new companies think about this all the time. The iconic Harvard Business Review article, “Eager Sellers and Stony Buyers: Understanding the Psychology of New Product Adoption” (which I highly recommend for all entrepreneurs and new business executives….and now for all corporate managers) notes that “People irrationally overvalue benefits they currently possess relative to those they don’t. The bias leads consumers to value the advantages of products they own more than the benefits of new ones.” The article cites a “status quo bias” that is so powerful that consumers overvalue the benefits of an existing product by a factor of three—and which gets even stronger over time.

Sound familiar?

In order to overcome that bias, Andy Grove—the late founder of Intel—suggested that new products should be 10x better than the product they are replacing. We’ve all heard that minorities and women have to work harder and be better to advance in business. There are certainly times that I’ve felt that. But 10x better is really asking for a lot, don’t you think?

If even those who support diversity are subconsciously holding candidates who don’t look like them to such a high bar, what’s to be done?

We’ve already talked about the micro forces that hold diversity back. Now let’s look at how micro decisions—i.e. the ones made by women like you and me—have the power move us forward.

I think we can all agree that technology is in the midst of reforming the world we work in. For many tech startups, that entails harnessing crowd-sourcing and other information gathering techniques to provide individuals with more information about the cultures and policies of companies where they might want to work, invest, or spend their money. Given women’s massive economic might, putting our money and/or our skills and talents to work to support businesses that are doing it right has the potential to drive real change.

And professionals today have another important alternative to gutting it out at a company that doesn’t “get it”: starting their own businesses. The cost of starting businesses is coming down rapidly, and this has the potential to disproportionately benefit professional women. In fact, according to research by Ellevate Network, the #1 reason women start businesses is to build a company where they want to work. And you can bet your bottom dollar that that means creating a business that values women.

The other benefit of starting your own business? As an entrepreneur, the market decides if you’re successful. Not some guy named Steve.

One last thing: I laid out the difference of opinion on a hire at Ellevest. What would you have done: overrule the team and hire Candidate A? Or let the team go with Candidate B?

We went with Candidate A, who ended up declining our offer because she didn’t see herself reflected in the company. While that wasn’t the outcome I hoped for, it was a reality check. Since then we’ve redoubled our efforts—and we won’t quit until we succeed.

Sallie Krawcheck is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest, an innovative digital investment platform for women. She is also Chair of the Ellevate Network, and was CEO of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Smith Barney.