Moving diversity forward: Strategies for inclusion, obstacles to overcome

Verna Myers

Vernā Myers

For more than 20 years, the legal profession has struggled to diversify its ranks, and minorities remain vastly underrepresented.

Vernā Myers, a diversity consultant for more than 20 years, says the missing component to diversity’s success is likely inclusion. Her new ABA-published book, Moving Diversity Forward: How to Go From Well–Meaning to Well-Doing, offers guidance on achieving inclusion, making the workplace more fulfilling and productive.

Myers recently met with YourABA, and shared best practices for creating more inclusive, diverse workplaces:

Your book takes a bold approach with the issue of diversity. You’re actually telling white executives how to go beyond the “feel good story” of diversity. Why did you decide to take that approach?

I took a real look at the organizations and the individuals that I know who are white and are really committed to equality and diversity, yet still haven’t been able to be successful at creating more inclusive organizations or neighborhoods, or boards, or even social networks. So, I said, let me tell you what I really think the problem is. The book is an answer to the question, ‘Why haven’t we made more progress?’ and provides guidance on what it would take to see the progress we want.

Why haven’t we made more progress?

I really believe that many well-meaning white people have another step to take if they are going to make a difference. That is, there are a number of skills that they need to learn—cultural competency skills—and there is a great deal of information they need to have about their own cultures and about the cultures of others.

They also have to be willing to put their stuff, so to speak, on the line.

Your book also focuses on the blacks and whites in the workforce. How can addressing the black/white issue create inclusion for other groups?

Among the organizations that I’m in, some have made progress on women’s issues and some on LGBT issues, but this whole thing with race, and not just race broadly, but specifically with African-Americans—that has been such a tough issue.

For example, male African-Americans have been in the workplace for a pretty long time and now they’re really absent. So, I thought that if you take the most difficult issue and you offer suggestions about what the majority group can do to learn the skills to feel comfortable, that will help them take risks and be proactive with race. It might allow them to use those skills in other diversity areas as well.

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What would you say are the top three prevailing issues between blacks and whites in the workforce today?

First of all, I think that white people have been taught to ignore race—to be color blind—and that’s really important to their sense of being just and fair individuals. But, when you have a problem and you refuse to acknowledge it because you have been taught not to see it, it’s hard to fix it.

I also think there are biases that still haunt black people—the bias against them and their intellect and their culture—in a ways that do not affect other underrepresented groups like women, gays and Asians. Whether people know it or not, they are often labeling black people with a very negative stereotype about their capabilities and motivations. I think that is a huge thing for African-Americans and those working with them to get over .

The third thing is that black people are always walking such a tight rope because there are all these negative stereotypes and it’s hard for them to win. If they’re too “out there,” they may be considered belligerent or angry. If they’re too quiet, then some white people feel uncomfortable around them because they don’t fit into a stereotype. There is a real lack of comfort.

A lack of comfort?

Integration never really caught on in most parts of the country. We still live really separately. We never really got that proximity that would provide comfort and dispel some of the myths. In fact, I find that the white people who are comfortable with black people were either in the armed services where they had to mix it up with black people; or their parents insisted that they live in a black or mixed neighborhood. There is something social that happened that changed their level of exposure to blacks and that allowed them to see black people as a heterogeneous group instead of a stereotype.

Could you explain contemporary racism?

It’s the kind of racism that is invisible to the person who is being influenced by it. It’s unconscious and unintentional. It is not malicious. It’s subtle. It’s a failure to recognize that we have grown up in a country and in a society that has taught us—maybe not in a classroom setting, but in all sorts of ways—TV, media, family or whatever—there are some groups that are superior to other groups.

Explicitly, we believe everyone is equal. But we’re still carrying around some unconscious beliefs that make it difficult for us to see people in certain groups as equal.  

How does contemporary racism play out in the workplace?

It might be that I’m a white supervisor and I have a new black person working for me and I give him a soft or easy project to see if he can do it.

Now, I don’t think I’m being biased against this person, but if you really ask me why I chose that project, often it’s because I have some concerns about his competency. And where do I get those concerns from? I’ve never met him before.

Whereas if a new white person shows up, that same supervisor might decide to throw him into the fray so he can “cut his teeth” on the difficult project. It might be challenging, but the supervisor reasons that if he nails it, it will be great. The supervisor perceives more of a risk with the black employee and the black employee’s opportunities are negatively impacted because of the unfounded and biased concerns of his supervisor.

What are the top tips for going ‘beyond the idea of diversity’?

I have got them down to the FOUR KNOWs. One, KNOW yourself as a cultural being. That is you have to do some work to understand your race and ethnicity and your gender because they're having an effect on how you are perceived and how you perceive others. It is also this idea if you know yourself you will actually start trying to know others.

The second KNOW is know the cultural backgrounds and contributions of others. That is what I’m calling ‘expand your dance card.’ You got to know more; have a broader network; have more information. You got to interact with people who are different from you. That’s if you want to get good at this. You’ve got to put yourself in the minority; go to places and events where others are in charge and their culture is prevalent.

The third thing is KNOW your biases. You have them. It is impossible not to have them. You’re not bad because you have them. You have to know them if you’re going to counter them. If you are in denial about the fact that you have biases, you won’t notice them and you won’t do anything about them. You will also think that you can proceed in diversity without making mistakes. I am against perfection. This is a journey. There is no perfection. It’s not about perfection. It’s about connection.

The last thing is to KNOW your unearned privileges and use them. So, where are you getting the benefit of the doubt in society just because you happen to be born in a group that an old, unfair system designated as superior? As a white person who is assumed to be capable at first glance; how do you use that assumption to help people see their biases against people of color? As a heterosexual, assumed to be good and moral, how do you create more fairness for the LGBT community?  How do you use your power to create more inclusion for others?

The FOUR KNOWS are a lot of work.

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Your book hinges on a metaphor about African-Americans being asked to dance. You said that inviting them to the party has already been done, but now it’s time to get off the wall and dance. What did you mean by that?

Firm owners control the culture, the opportunities, the ways people’s contributions are valued and who gets to dance.

People who are invited to the party need to show up qualified. But having said that, they still need the host to invite them to use what they have on behalf of the organization.

They also need to be invited to change the culture. The problem is that people want to have difference, but they don’t want to be changed by difference. They invite a whole bunch of different people in and expect those people to conform to the culture that is already there. It doesn’t work and you’re missing the whole value of having different people there. If you don’t have inclusion you’re not going to have the benefits of that difference, and pretty soon, you have a revolving door.

What is the litmus test for inclusion?

I think it’s where you see people of every background in power positions. You see them with the most important accounts. You see the organization changing the way it does things and how it allocates opportunity. It’s a cultural shift and it doesn’t happen overnight, but it requires a certain type of openness and a certain type of courage because you can’t have change without changing. You really can’t. It’s kind of insane to think that you could. 

What are the three missteps an organization can make when it comes to inclusion?

I think one of the big mistakes is assuming what will help the underrepresented group instead of asking these people and including them in the process. You can get caught up in a lot of assumptions when you don’t ask. You have organizations where, when they interview people, they only have them meet with people in the company who are of the same race and/or gender of the candidate.  The candidate is like, “Wait, what is this? I know they only have three Latinos and I just met them all.” It may be nice, for example, to meet the women who work in the area you’re considering, but you might also want to meet the men to see how inviting the department is going to be. These firms are trying to be inclusive, but they’re doing it in a way that doesn’t allow for the person to be holistic and complex. They are pigeon-holing them.

The other problem would be not working on awareness; going to the “doing” without having the “understanding.” It’s a lot about giving people the opportunity to talk about difference and learn about culture and how it impacts the everyday functioning at the firm. The mistake is that organizations try to do it in a short-hand kind of a way. They might have one training and think they’re done. Doing it right involves a lot of education, conversations, skills training, monitoring and accounting around work allocation, as well as work around hiring, evaluations, promotion, you name it.

‘Bias proofing your systems’ is also important. Companies like to have a diversity reception or event, but they don’t want to change their compensation system or how they choose their leaders so that their ways of operating don’t have a disproportionately negative impact on underrepresented groups. They’re resistant to systemic change. That’s the real problem.

A company may think they’re doing well, but like you mentioned in your book, retention is a red flag as to how you’re doing.

Yes, and they’re losing money from that. They’re bleeding people, but if you don’t see people as a real asset then you don’t always notice that you’re taking away from your own bottom line.

For me, on a personal level, I went to India and hung out with a lot of Indian people. And when I came back here, I was so interested in Indian people and being more immersed in that culture. The thought that I’ve been living my life without the beauty of knowing that culture or understanding all the things they add and can add to my life. How do you teach people what they’re missing if they don’t know they’re missing it because they never experience it?

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There is this Yoruba proverb that says, ‘You think your father's farm is the biggest, until you visit another man's farm.’

Yes, exactly. I was actually in Nigeria last summer. If you’re used to going around to different cultures, you just see it. Once you leave America, America is a great country, but you visit other countries and you’re like, “Wow, that’s great too. We don’t have that or I would have never thought of that.”

So, one of the things I wish is that when people come into these environments, they don’t  immediately feel the need to hide the thing that is different about them.

What suggestions do you have for an organization to become more inviting and for people who are in the organization to be more inclusive?

To just have some inclusive processes; do cultural audits to ask how people are experiencing the environment. Create a process to get input. That’s really powerful.

Also, it’s about teaching people to show some basic courtesy. If you don’t say hello to people, if you don’t acknowledge them, thank them, show interest in them, it has an impact.  So, maybe you don’t do that with Joe down the hall, but if you also don’t do that with Sue, who is the only woman on the hall, it may have a different and more negative impact on her.

And, be very attentive to how opportunity is distributed to make sure that it is an equal process. So, make sure the same people don’t get all the opportunities. Executives and managers should be accountable for rotating opportunity and access and developing all of their talent, not just the folks who they might be most comfortable with or who are most like them. 

Is it too optimistic to think that we all can acquire the skills to combat some of the ills of diversity?

I don’t think it’s too optimistic.  I’m sometimes in my workshop and I’m explaining the nuance of the problem, and I can see some of my participants throw up their hands. They say, ‘I can’t say this and if I say that, then what am I supposed to do?’

You can’t just get up in the morning and know exactly what to say, but you can learn basic cultural competency skills that allow you to navigate the dynamic. You have to interact with people. You have to make mistakes.

People hate making mistakes. And they don’t want anybody to call them a racist. They’re so scared of that, but I’m thinking if you don’t mix it up and you don’t make the mistakes and acquire new skills, you are subject to being influenced by racism.

What can African-Americans do to enhance the work environment as it relates to inclusion?

One of the things they can do is start looking for the people who want to dance. You know there are some white people, who are saying, like when you were at a school mixer, ‘Hey, do you want to dance?” Some folks of color are saying, ‘No, that’s alright.’ Some African-Americans have their own assumptions. We need to stay open and look for those people who want to dance.

The other thing is that there are cultural skills and awareness that African-Americans need to learn as well. A lot of us have learned how to negotiate environments where the culture is not reflective of us. We’ve done a lot of work in that area, but we have our own biases against ourselves and others. We need to pay attention to some of our behaviors and assumptions that make us complicit with our own lack of success.

And so I think we need to check those behaviors. We need to be willing to take risks, so when people come to us with opportunities; we actually take hold of them. I also think we need to stand up when we see bias against ourselves and bias against others. There are areas where each of us have majority identities (maybe we are Christian or able-bodied or U.S. born) and we have the responsibility to actually stop that bias as well and create inclusion.

Since we have a black president does it mean we’ve reached a pinnacle of success in diversity?

No, it means that he reached the pinnacle. But it does not mean that the whole group of black people did and the many obstacles it encounters on the way to success suddenly disappeared.

Has this book changed you in any way? If so, how? Also, as diversity consultant, has it made your job or will it make your job a little easier?

To write this book I had to exercise a lot of faith—faith in myself, faith in others and faith in God. I believe that all of us have the potential to overcome our biases and fears and build a just and inclusive world. After writing the book, I am even more fiercely committed to working hard with folks of all backgrounds to make that world a reality. I hope people can feel the love and optimism and be motivated to get out on the dance floor.

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