The Accenture annual meeting started like any other at a Global Fortune 500 company. Food was eaten, and drinks imbibed; employees exchanged awkward pleasantries. Then, the CEO of North America rose to speak to the room. She applauded the work that had been done and touted the company’s growth figures. But when she praised the female managing director (MD) promotion rate – which had reached 24% of all MD promotions – a lone analyst rose to ask a question.
“Why are we celebrating a 24% promotion rate? Shouldn’t we be aiming for 50%?”
Caught off guard, she stumbled through the first words of her response before promising that the company would keep fighting until promotion rates for men and women were equal. After the session, women and men both approached me with thanks for bringing attention to a vital issue. I had clearly touched a nerve. Subsequently, I was invited by the national analyst development program to work on local inclusion and diversity (I&D) issues. Based on my work in Philadelphia, I would later be promoted to national I&D lead planning and implementing events for over 1,100 analysts.
I’m writing today’s post because I care deeply about equality and I&D issues. No one should be excluded from contributing to an organization for qualities not relevant to that organization’s mission including but not limited to race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. As student leaders, we have a unique opportunity to ensure that our organizations are inclusive. We must build and structure our groups so that they benefit from diversity. Our teammates and our country will be better for our efforts.
First, we need to have impactful discussions both about how prejudice can play a negative role in our organizations and how we can structure our organizations to combat it. When planning an I&D discussion, it’s vital to understand that most people aren’t comfortable discussing inequity. Additionally, people can be sensitive about issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. This can result in stilted conversations where individuals are afraid to contribute because they don’t want to be judged or don’t want to say something that seems insensitive.
To promote useful discussion, I developed strategies that help to get these events started:
Establish Rules – When touchy subjects arise, people are more likely to contribute if they feel that their statements and questions will be accepted both without judgment and with the assumption that their intentions are good. So, all participants should agree to rules before the discussion begins. You should tailor the rules to your event, but some good ones that I’ve used in the past include:
Confidentiality – All subjects and discussions should be confidential. While ideas and suggestions might leave a room, no one should be identified unless they give express permission.
Assumption of Positivity – All contributions will be taken with the assumption that there is a positive intention. We discuss with the knowledge that we are all prejudiced in one way or another, and we are trying to improve and mitigate our own ignorance. Additionally, we all come into this discussion with different experience and exposure levels, and we should not be judged for trying to understand and improve.
No Dumb Questions – Similar to the Assumption of Positivity rule, participants should be free to ask questions without judgment. This includes questions that people might perceive as “dumb”.
Commitment to Step Outside Our Comfort Zone – As individuals, we commit to stepping outside our comfort zone. This includes considering positions that we might find uncomfortable. This includes listening to others without interruption and with acceptance. This includes taking positive risks by asking questions, expressing our thoughts, and confronting our prejudices.
Commitment to Contribute – We will commit to contribute to the discussion when we have something we would like to say. As an aside, I’m a big fan of this last rule since making people commit to contribute before the discussion will make them more likely to do so.
Plant Responses – When people are unsure of how to behave, they will look to their peers to inform their response. If no one is opening up, it’s unlikely that any particular individual in the audience will open up. Therefore, having a few “plants” (i.e. friends who provide pre-planned responses) will provide a social cue that expressing thoughts is acceptable. Peer pressure, like any tool, is not inherently good or bad. In this case, it can be used to positive effect.
Build Momentum – You shouldn’t expect people to respond to difficult questions off the bat. Establish some momentum by discussing less controversial topics first before advancing to more difficult subjects. For example, if you’re planning a discussion on implicit bias in the workplace, have participants talk about the communities that they grew up in and the biases they encountered there before discussing whether they may have their own biases when making decisions about hiring, promotions, etc.
Second, we must work to actively incorporate I&D into our organizations and leadership. Decades of scientific research show that diversity of thought and backgrounds makes us more creative and efficient. As student leaders, it’s our duty to ensure that we accomplish the mission statement of our organization as successfully as possible. Diversity is a vital component of fulfilling that duty. Additionally, when we work to make our organizations more inclusive, our members will feel more comfortable and will be more productive. The most effective way I’ve found to promote inclusivity is to commit to it in your mission statement and actively define metrics which quantitatively track the improvement of diverse representation in your group and your board.
CS1 (Speech & Debate): One of the oddest moments I encountered during my tenure as president of Speech & Debate happened at the end of my freshman year. Having just run the team for a semester, I held elections for board positions. When I assembled my new leadership, I saw something which jarred me. I am an East Asian American man. My board was almost all East Asian American men (there was one East Asian American woman who was the social chair). I felt like I was in some terrible Chinese soap opera.
This result was not intentional, and that’s the point. We naturally gravitate towards things, ideas, and people who are familiar. As the only representative of the team at the previous activities fair, I attracted people who were like me which resulted in a team that was mostly like me which resulted in a board that was mostly like me. It’s also possible that my own implicit biases played a role in the composition of my board. Even those of us who have studied and understand the value of diversity are not immune to bias. We must actively fight for diversity. That is how we succeed.
My question at the Accenture annual meeting was certainly a dramatic moment. But, I’m proud to have worked at Accenture. Like other companies and organizations, it struggles with I&D issues, but I believe it’s one of the few corporations that’s actively trying to improve. About half a year after the annual meeting, the CEO of North America for Accenture sent a company wide message naming inclusion and diversity as one of the top five most important keys for Accenture’s success in the upcoming fiscal year. I’d like to believe that she was thinking about me when she made that announcement.
There is a more fundamental reason, though, as to why inclusion and diversity is so important in student organizations. College, much as we may hate to admit it, is a microcosm of the real world. The administration is the government; student organizations are businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies; and student leaders are members of the C-Suite. As leaders, the values that we promote in our organizations will influence the values of our members. After graduation, these values will be reflected in the real world.