Skip to Content

When It Comes to Diversity and Inclusion, ‘This Is a Problem About Power’

Ellen McGirt stepped onstage at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen summit and began to tell hundreds of executives about her love of fly fishing.

I’ve never come across a person of color in all the years that I’ve ventured into some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the United States, she said. But look back in history and you’ll find “breathtakingly racist” early writings by conservationists like Madison Grant, author of The Passing of the Great Race: Or, The Racial Basis of European History. No wonder it’s a rarity today to see park rangers, hikers, and other nature-lovers of color.

Today, McGirt—author of Fortune’s RaceAhead newsletter on corporate diversity in America—is “a black woman fly fishing in Madison Grant’s America.” A triumph, no doubt—but in the long shadow of a legacy that’s difficult to ignore.

“Racism runs so deep, and is baked so profoundly in everything we do, or see, or think, that it’s almost impossible to see the bottom,” she said from the stage in Laguna Niguel, Calif. “And that makes it so much harder to see each other.”

McGirt offered her story as a means to kick off a “town hall” discussion among the summit’s attendees about so-called blind spots in organizations that are otherwise on a path to create more diverse and inclusive workplaces. How to identify and address them? Executives in attendance had plenty of insight to offer.

Katrina Jones, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the gaming entertainment service Twitch, said she spent many years working almost exclusively among white women. “One thing that has existed as a divide, and for me that has made me feel disconnected, is that I’ve felt that I could not bring my race, and the experiences [that derive from it], forward.”

Allies can help. Leyla Seka, executive vice president of Salesforce Mobile, explained how she raised millions to achieve gender-based pay equity at her San Francisco software company. That success led to her becoming an executive sponsor of BOLDforce—that is, Black Organization for Leadership and Development at Salesforce—even though she’s not black.

“Equal pay was a beautiful example of how you could use your voice to change things,” she said. Now she’s using her voice on behalf of colleagues of color.

So can a new mindset. Karla Monterroso, CEO of talent recruiting nonprofit Code2040, said she didn’t realize until recently how much her vote in an American election affected policy in her family’s country of Guatemala. That moment of clarity was profound, and informs how she thinks about diversity and inclusion in organizations.

“This is a problem about power: who has it, who doesn’t it, how we choose to distribute it or not, how we incur risk and whom we ask to incur it,” she said. And, she added, there are systems and processes that reinforce that imbalance of power.

Several executives offered examples of small changes that make large differences. One executive reminded fellow women in the room to look at their team and see if they’re promoting equal pay. “You can fund power,” she said. “Are you funding them and giving them the opportunities they deserve?”

Another participant suggested that executives implement “mechanisms” such as Lean In circles to empower people in their organization. A third, Tequitable CTO Heidi Williams, suggested that the women in the room sign up 10 white men to read McGirt’s newsletter and the Broadsheet, Fortune’s newsletter about powerful women.

A fourth, startup advisor Bärí Williams, reminded the group that inequality isn’t just one based on gender or skin color. “Often times we take for granted an employee’s ability to pay for things,” she said. A person may have bad credit, or be over-leveraged, or behind a payment. Often that person is a woman of color who’s supporting another member of the family. “Companies should be proactive,” she said. “If you want me to attend something, you pay for it. You sponsor it. You figure out how to pay for it.”

A fifth participant, from Reddit, urged the room to leverage people already in power. “It’s super important that, at the executive level, you force the conversation,” she said. “Wherever you sit in the chain, you fundamentally ask the question and not rely on minorities in the room to ask the question.” And, she added, “You do need to stand up and say the things that need to be said. You have to be able to have a real conversation and listen to others even if you fundamentally disagree with where they come from.”

Monterroso, of Code2040, agreed. “We need to invest money and power and capital at the top to do work,” she said, and not just use ERGs—employee resource groups—to do the heavy lifting.

An executive from Facebook concurred: “If you are going to start diversity initiatives, you have to insist that whoever who’s in the most significant place of power attends. Regularly,” she said. Make sure it’s not a top-down initiative. Give people voices in spaces where they’re not usually invited, she said.

Jones, of Twitch, recalled the story of a longtime colleague who wanted to go to a blow-dry bar when they began to gain popularity. It was a fraught moment. “I can’t go and just walk into any salon and assume that someone will know how to do my hair,” Jones said. “I have lots of experience that tells me, ‘Don’t do it.’” That matters because a “lack of a social connection” between people of different backgrounds, particularly during the mundanities of life, prevents them from meeting in the middle, she said.

It’s all about cultivating relationships that create opportunities and break down boundaries, and IBM executive said. Besides, women and people of color are already engaged on these issues. The challenge is reaching everyone else.

“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves,” she said. “We have to make sure that we’re bringing [other] people in.”