Author and journalist Pamela Newkirk, PhD, has spent a considerable portion of her life in journalism and higher education. “In three of four newsrooms, I was the only African American news reporter. I would later become one of two people of color on New York University’s tenure-track journalism faculty,” she writes in the preface to her 2019 book Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business. “During more than three decades of my professional life,” she continues, “diversity has been a national preoccupation. Yet despite decades of hand wringing, costly initiatives, and uncomfortable conversations, progress in most elite American institutions has been negligible.”
In a conversation at From Day One’s December virtual conference on inclusive leadership, Newkirk reflected on the theme of her book as well as the surge of corporate commitment to diversity in response to this year’s racial-justice movement. “It was already beginning to boom, as I was completing the book around 2017, early 2018. And since that time, it blossomed even more,” Newkirk told Fortune associate editor Emma Hinchliffe in a fireside chat about why the diversity industry has failed–and what can be done to fix it. “It is one of the huge growth industries right now, and I think a lot of that was due to the ways in which race has been so highlighted during these past four years, beginning with the election of Donald Trump.”
In recent years, many Fortune 500 companies, as well as organizations in higher education and government, have hired their first chief diversity officers. “Surely many institutions had long had someone in a role like that, but the idea of chief diversity officers has just caught fire,” Newkirk said. “Many people see it as a cure, as if having these people in the organization is the answer. The hiring of a diversity officer is the beginning. It should not be seen as the end game.”
Chief diversity officers arrive in an organization as, in Newkirk’s words, “change agents.” That’s what the job calls for, but the system around them doesn’t always welcome that disruption. “Oftentimes, they are among the most marginalized people, particularly in executive roles. Time after time, they say they are marginalized, they are not given the resources, they don't have a direct line to the CEO or to the university president. All of these things will just undermine any chance they have of being successful,” Newkirk said. It’s almost as if top management believes that “just the symbolism of having them there is enough.”
In fact, a chief diversity officer can do very little without the full commitment of leadership. D&I professionals will be only as successful as those in power allow them to be. A 2019 report by management consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates, which examined diversity in Fortune 500 companies, found out that only 35% of diversity officers had access to the personnel metrics of the organization, which meant they could barely see where the problems were. “All the ways bias can metastasize, you can only know if you have transparent metrics that you can quantify,” said Newkirk. “And so that's just an indication that many people in that role are not given the support that they need to actually be successful.”
The main shortfall of employers’ efforts toward diversity, Newkirk said, is a check-the-box approach, rather than a holistic one. “It’s as if you can have a diversity survey, a climate survey, do one or two things, and ‘Voila!’,” said Newkirk.
Newkirk explained that research is showing that anti-bias training may at best change attitudes for a day, but it can also make the problem worse by prompting resistance. “Anti-bias training, in itself, is not working,” said Newkirk. “So what I would say, whether you do anti-bias training or not, these institutions need to shift their focus from trying to change hearts and minds to actual interventions.”
One of those interventions the employee-recruitment pipeline, which can help employers reach out to a broader candidate pool. “Many organizations continue to hire from a very, very small network,” Newkirk said. “We live in a rigidly segregated society. People hire who they know, they hire who their friends know, they hire who's recommended. And oftentimes people of color are just left out of that network, so this kind of workplace homogeneity is self-perpetuating,” she said. “Breaking that cycle takes intention, and it takes will.” Organizations also need to be intentional about outreach and mentoring. “If we keep doing the same thing,” Newkirk warned, “we’ll keep getting abysmal results. Many would rather spend millions in diversity efforts,” she said, alluding to training workshops, “rather than invest in mentoring or expanding the pipeline in looking outside the familiar.”
For many years, Newkirk observed, people tended to assume that after civil-rights movements, all had been resolved. “If there’s one silver lining from the tragedies that took place over the summer, I think that it has finally broken through to more people that we still, despite the progress that has been made, have not completed the job. And without vigilance, we can lose ground on even the progress that was made,” she said.
As for organizations, their hefty down payments toward racial justice were welcome as far as they went. “This is all well and good, but there was no looking inward into the bias that’s living within the walls of these organizations,” said Newkirk. “It’s not just about writing a check, it’s looking at what leaders can do to ensure there’s greater justice, racial inclusion, representations.”
Alas, even success stories are not necessarily permanent. “One of the companies that I featured in the book is Coca-Cola, and I looked at how they built a more diverse and inclusive workplace after a discrimination lawsuit settlement in 2000,” Newkirk said. “Over a five-year period, with a system of transparent metrics, where they looked at employees across racial lines–they were looking for issues of equity and pay and promotions–they were able to see where the virus had metastasized.”
The company kept that kind of transparent system going and added a layer of accountability on top of that, with a task force that was overseeing the efforts to change the workplace, Newkirk said. In a period of five years, the company was able to make significant strides in diversifying the workplace, even in management positions. “Now, I understand that in recent years, there's been some backsliding,” said Newkirk. (From Day One reached out to Coca-Cola for comment and will update this story with any responses we receive.) “But I don't think that diminishes the model that was set in the way it was done,” Newkirk added optimistically. “It could be replicated by any institution that really wanted to change.”
Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.