Diversity Ebb and Flow

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 07-14-2008 Print Email

Diversity Ebb and Flow

Several years ago, a new hire came to the United States from a conservative Middle Eastern country to work in a management development program at a huge multi-national company. "He was completely overwhelmed by the workplace," recalls his American boss, who has been a CIO at a global 100 company and asked to remain nameless in this article. "He couldn't deal with women. He started out by locking himself in his office, and then he stopped coming to work. We sent him home after about three weeks."

Today, the executive says, the process for hiring people across cultures would be more rigorous. It might involve video interviews, for example, with diverse panelists (including women) on the call. But the story says a lot about the challenges of creating a diverse workplace in a global age. People from different backgrounds may not be comfortable with the corporate culture of American and European firms, whether they hire on in Western countries or go to work in a local office closer to home.

At the same time, diversity gains taken for granted in the United States are not set in stone, and there, too, globalization plays a role. Since 2001, the number of African-Americans in IT has gone down by 25 percent, even as overall IT employment has increased. A survey conducted for the Information Technology Senior Management Forum, a group of black IT managers, found that many black workers essentially viewed the IT workplace as unwelcoming to them and saw limited advancement possibilities.

"Midlevel managers have a sense that there's a lack of opportunity for people of color--and more specifically African-Americans--in IT," says Viola Thompson, the group's executive director. Meanwhile, the perception that entry-level positions are being lost to offshoring and outsourcing is leading African-American students to shun IT. "They don't see the opportunities to excel," Thompson says.

The number of women in IT, meanwhile, dropped by nearly 8 percent during the same period. Workplace environment seems to be a factor here, too, with many women finding that male-dominated IT shops are not a welcoming place to do business.

"I don't see it as bias in the management ranks so much as less sensitivity than is needed to create an environment people want to be in," says Shaklee's Harris, previously CIO at the Gap and Nike. Either way, the trend is troubling.

A study done by the Center for Work-Life Policy reports that the fields of science, engineering and technology are "hostile to women in general," says Karen Sumberg, a staffer at the organization and co-author of a Harvard Business Review report called "The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology." Sixty-three percent of women surveyed by the group said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment while working in those three areas.

In other areas, Shaklee's Harris says, more overt bias may work against diversity. Age is one example, with older workers feeling squeezed by management and disrespected by their younger colleagues.

Former IBMer Childs points out another problem area, saying the two groups most likely to be disenfranchised in today's workplace are "the disabled and gay communities." But he adds, "It's becoming understood that there is a lot of talent there."

Here again, globalization can exacerbate some issues. Sumberg of the Center for Work-Life Policy puts it bluntly: "By American standards, some places are in kind of a time warp. If someone comes here from another country and finds a culture that makes them uncomfortable, it's a problem for everyone."

Translating company values globally while remaining respectful of local cultures is a major challenge. Says Shaklee's Harris, "People form worldviews based on the environment they grew up in--not just the obvious things, but things like having either an abundance mentality or a shortage mentality." Reconciling different worldviews is a key to managing diversity.



 

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