“Everyone needs an opportunity to shine”

Although more and more companies are recognising the value of diverse teams, little has improved since the 1980s, says Alexandra Kalev, Professor at Tel Aviv University. In an interview, she explains what went wrong – and how companies can succeed.

Alexandra, why can a diverse workforce make a company more successful?

If you always gather the same kind of managers around you, you fail to identify the full pool of talent that may be useful for your company, and you ultimately miss out on the opportunity for progress and greater success. For example, people from groups that are underrepresented in leadership positions have often had extraordinary experiences in their lives, as they were working hard to overcome barriers. Companies can benefit from the different perspectives they bring.

So why do so many companies have such a hard time with this?

Many organizations, large or small, want to reproduce themselves as risk-free as possible – with the means and methods they know. This applies not least to HR issues, from the choice of head hunters to the way they network to career paths within the company. For example, managers often mentor juniors that remind them of themselves. All in all, this attitude promotes the opposite of diversity and change.

But many companies have been embracing more diversity for a while now.

High public pressure is forcing companies to act. Some are also quite transparent about it. Unfortunately, the figures show that, on the whole, not much has improved since the 1980s. Why? Many companies make an effort, but often choose the wrong path – and sometimes end up worse off than before.

In some cases, employees feel so pressured by diversity training that their attitudes toward minorities and marginalised groups even harden.

What goes wrong?

Most companies focus on trying to change the attitudes of individuals, along the lines of: you have prejudices, you have to change. Classic diversity training in companies very often follows this pattern and is, moreover, an isolated event. This is of little use; our attitudes and prejudices are deeply rooted in us. Most participants tick off the training and carry on as before. In some cases, employees feel so pressured that their attitudes toward minorities and marginalised groups even harden.

What do companies need to do instead?

It is crucial to soften the deadlocked system and to better integrate disadvantaged groups at each step of the career. This starts with new hires. Why not work with HR consultants and NGOs that specialise in such groups? Mentoring. Everyone needs the chance to shine. Disadvantaged groups need to have the chance to present themselves to top management – to those who really have the power to make a difference.

Diversity only promises success, though, if there is a culture of collaboration in which everyone can contribute their talent.

And how do we achieve that?

In practice, for example, black managers without much authority, are often mentors to black junior staff. This mentoring also tends to reinforce silo thinking and group boundaries. Diversity only promises success, though, if there is a culture of collaboration in which everyone can contribute their talent. Universal mentoring – mentoring in which everyone participates, and mentor-matching is done by areas of interest and expertise – is particularly suitable. This form of culture starts at the top.

What do you mean?

The signal effect of the company's top management is enormous. Managers and employees support diversity if they see that the commitment to more diversity is truly appreciated and wanted by their bosses.

Will companies make better use of the treasure trove of their employees’ individual experiences in the future?

There are positive signs. Diversity is becoming a strategic issue for many companies because it helps them tap into new markets and develop new ideas. This promotes commitment to true diversity.

This interview was conducted by Claudio De Luca and Felix Winnands.

About Alexandra Kalev

Frank Dobbin & Alexandra Kalev: Getting to diversity – what works and what doesn't

Alexandra Kalev is Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University. She received her PhD from Princeton University.

Together with Frank Dobbin, she is developing an evidence-based approach to managing diversity in corporations and universities. They also examine the effects of workforce diversity on firms’ financial performance.

Alexandra Kalev's book – co-authored with Frank Dobbin – summarises their latest research findings: “Getting to Diversity” was published in September.

Claudio De Luca

… is fascinated by the dynamics that emerge when people from all different corners come together. At Deutsche Bank, Claudio works as Head of Editing.

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