By Andrew Cohen
A new article by Berkeley Law Professor Victoria Plaut was a hot topic at the recent World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, China. Plaut led two sessions there that amplified her research—just published in Scientific American—on diversity and inclusion in work and academic settings.
She directed an hour-long discussion of her findings at the forum, which assembles leaders in science, technology, business, government, media, academia, and civil society. Earlier, meeting with 30 global business leaders in a private session, she highlighted key data on the merits of diversity and inclusion—and best practices for incorporating them at all levels of a company.
“Many companies say they care about diversity,” Plaut said. “I think the issue is whether they’re willing to take the lead on diversity not only within their companies, but in their communities. As we’ve seen with the recent disclosures of diversity numbers in hi-tech firms, the demographics in some of these industries are so skewed that if companies really want change, they’ll need to take a more active role.”
A professor of law and social science, Plaut also directs Berkeley Law’s Culture, Diversity & Intergroup Relations Lab. She has authored more than 40 publications, and consulted on diversity issues for myriad clients including school districts, universities, corporations, and health care organizations.
After her meeting with global business leaders, Plaut joined them for a closed session with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who discussed China’s economic and job-growth targets. Plaut also met with Berkeley Law graduate Aron Cramer ’89, the CEO of Business for Social Responsibility—a global nonprofit business network dedicated to sustainability.
“It’s very gratifying to help the law school extend its global reach and connecting with Aron was one of the highlights of my visit,” Plaut said. “Many of our alums are having a global impact and we should be helping the next generation of graduates enter the global conversation.”
Plaut’s new article reveals three common misconceptions that impede creating diverse and inclusive settings where individuals from underrepresented groups feel comfortable enough to engage productively—and to remain committed.
First, many business and academic leaders assume they need not consider how difference matters in order to promote diversity. Second, they believe that everyone experiences school or work settings in much the same way. Third, if diversity problems arise, they think little can be done—because they view the problems as too systemic or mostly caused by a few biased people.
A growing body of social science data, however, has demonstrated ways to increase the odds of creating a thriving, diverse workplace:
Forget color blindness: Plaut’s research shows how employees find it easier to succeed and feel comfortable in a supportive environment that acknowledges differences—rather than one that ignores them.
The sense of engagement experienced by employees of color in a given department fluctuated as a function of white colleagues’ attitudes toward difference. The more white employees thought differences should be ignored, the less engaged employees of color felt. The more white workers publicly espoused support for diversity, the greater the engagement of their nonwhite coworkers. In the ‘color-blind’ departments, Plaut said “individuals from underrepresented groups perceived more bias. In the ‘acknowledging’ departments, they perceived less.”
Bolster Belonging: Mounting research shows that a sense of belonging drives the participation and performance of underrepresented groups. More black graduates per capita from historically black colleges enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, for example, than black students at other colleges.
“Studies also show that women are more likely to enter these fields when the pursuit of science is emphasized as a collaborative effort rather than a solitary one,” Plaut said. In 2009, she published a study that showed how even changing the objects in a computer science classroom—from stereotypical items such as Star Trek posters to more neutral objects—“raised female students’ level of interest in the subject matter to that of the men.”
Take Action: Organizations that designate someone to lead diversity initiatives have stronger records of employing managers from underrepresented groups. Those with a full-time diversity staffer, for example, saw a 15 percent increase in black employees among management over five to seven years.
Companies that create a task force of employees held accountable for increasing diversity, Plaut said, “experience significant increases in blacks, Latinos, and Asian-Americans in management.”
Her article also notes the impact of mentoring programs in adding more women and people of color in private-sector management and science education. After such programs were launched, gains in the proportions of managers for some of these groups reached nearly 40 percent.
While meeting with public and private sector leaders from around the world, Plaut acknowledged the challenges in promoting diversity as the global economy becomes more transnational.
“Not only do opinions vary, but the context varies in each country,” Plaut said. “For Chinese leaders, diversity may be about how to get one’s company to be global in a newly open environment. Japanese leaders may be concerned with addressing their country’s gender gap in the face of an aging and slow-growth workforce. Race enters the discussion more in U.S. and South African companies, and many countries are worried about empowering the younger generation. Whatever the specifics may be, it’s also important to discuss and identify problems and strategies at a global level.”