Why inclusion starts in the C-suite

When Gwen Houston tries to explain just how deep the diversity chasm is in corporate America, she pulls out a statistic so astonishing that it does much of the talking for her: Among the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, less than 1% are Black, and they are all male.

Professional African American person using a digital tablet looking out the windows on the top floor of a city office skyscraper.

“When it comes to talking about the whole issue of racial equity and Black professionals in the workplace, what strikes me in terms of how severe and how bad it is, is that even after a generation of very well-educated and extraordinarily talented Black professionals have forged a path through corporate America, and with another generation following, we still don’t see significant and sustainable progress,” Houston says.

A former chief diversity officer for several large corporations, including Microsoft and Campbell Soup, Houston dedicated her career to the cause of workplace inclusion. Now as a consultant and advisor, she’s still advocating for it. Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary and Houston met virtually for the Knowledge@Wharton podcast series titled “Leading Diversity at Work” to discuss matters of workplace inclusion.

The news about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) isn’t all bleak. According to Houston, many companies have made significant strides by embracing DEI as a value proposition, because research has shown that diverse teams are more innovative and adept at anticipating marketplace changes. These firms have implemented unconscious bias training, minority recruitment initiatives and mentorships for minority employees. But that’s not enough.

Both Houston and Creary agree that kind of re-education—unlearning old assumptions about race—is one of the toughest challenges to achieving a more equitable workplace. Many white people are uncomfortable talking about racism or believe that it is a problem for minorities to solve. Or they rely on the excuse that they simply cannot find qualified minority or female candidates for the job. Houston said she often counters that argument with demographic data that shows there are plenty of diverse candidates in the pipeline.

“By the way, when we talk about diversity, there’s no substitute for quality,” she says. “One of the phrases I’d love for people not to say is ‘qualified, diverse candidates.’ Do you really think I want to go after unqualified talent? That’s not who I am. But those terms are not mutually exclusive, and those are some of the microaggressions that people of color, Black people, experience all the time, that we’re lowering the bar, lowering the standards to hire them. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.