Author Anise D. Wiley-Little is a longtime human-resources executive, who served as chief talent acquisition officer and chief diversity officer for Allstate. Now a consultant, she has shared a chapter from her 2013 book, Profitable Diversity: How Economic Inclusion Can Lead to Success, called "Class, Economics, Race, and Gender."
Diversity had an early foundation in equity in regard to race and gender, but as it evolves, ask if it's now more about poverty and class. As progress with diversity is elevated, keep an open mind by looking for greater advancements in the field because a clear vision of what is really happening around us is necessary. Fairness is what is sought as we strive for greater achievement. Most everyone wants to play by the same rules and have a fair shot, but is that possible?
Regardless of race, where is crime most pervasive? Typically, the most social challenges are found in economically impoverished areas. Regardless of gender or race, whom do we find successful people spending their time with? Most often, other people within their own economic class.
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty's report "Improving the Odds for Adolescents July 2011," low-income children continue to feel the effects of poverty throughout their working lives, including poor employment outcomes. The United States is one of the few places that, despite the situation you are born into, you can move yourself from poverty to prosperity. But those numbers are small. In the UK, this has been addressed through the Deputy Prime Minister's Social Mobility Strategy through the Business Compact, which encourages the hiring of those from all socio-economic backgrounds.
The Numbers Tell the Story of Change
Is it time to think about diversity in a new paradigm? The number of low-income individuals is growing in rural areas. The Rural School and Community Trust's report "Why Rural Matters 2011"“2012: The Condition of Rural Education in the 50 States" notes increased rates of poverty in rural America, some due to the growing Hispanic populations in the South, Southeast, and Appalachia. Poverty overall has grown in the Southwest, South, and Midwest.
The recognition of poverty and class leads us to the next level of discussion, which is to ask who is focusing on these broader issues. How can social scientists and the government begin to raise the profile of the conversation so that we can intentionally shape the years to come? It can be said that the business case is clear, but when we have to continually justify the existence of diversity and its advantages or disadvantages, the business case development, which may be clear to some, continues to hold an elusive promise for others.
It's true that the wealth gap continues to widen between whites and minorities according to the new census data. The Pew Research Center says the median wealth of white households in 2009 was $113,149, compared to $6,325 for Hispanics, and $5,677 for blacks.
Poverty rates among minorities continue to rise for all groups except for Asians. Women may represent a significant portion of the U.S. workforce, but their wages are still struggling to meet parity. They are still at 77 percent of what men make according to the U.S. census in September of 2010. The median earnings for women of color, except Asians at 90 percent, are even lower.
The Lack of Opportunity
The difference is opportunity. To affect this lack, it must start early, much earlier than college or upon entry to the workplace, which is where most organizations want to spend their time and money. The only place that touches most children consistently is school, which is where change begins. This is where our investment should begin. However, organizations want instant gratification by investing in diversity recruiting from colleges or providing internships to the underprivileged. With the lack of that investment earlier in the cycle, those without opportunity start life at a disadvantage.
Yes, some will pull themselves up despite their life circumstances, yet others, even if they do pull themselves to a better place, have faced a more challenging road. Corporate Voices for Working Families, the leading national business membership organization representing the private sector on public policy issues, supports business and education partnerships that encourage organizations to start early in the process and ultimately impact talent management. Their research is developing a numbers-based business case compelling business leaders to take the lead in early development of a diverse talent pipeline.
There has been little consistency in the recent research of diversity and social justice. Some practitioners believe there is no longer room for social justice in the diversity equation, while others believe we must think outside the box to expand our understanding of diversity. Profitable diversity can be seen as a measure of success that provides an advantage, which may be in dollars, to a greater good as well as increased innovation, efficiency, or collaboration. In order to move closer to any of these benefits of diversity, we must fully explore the tenets that may impact how we think about it, including the economics.
One could easily argue that the white person in poverty without access to industry and jobs should also be a focus of diversity, rather than the Latino individual in the suburbs of a large city who has access to the many possibilities of education and culture. Institutional barriers still exist, although circumstances can and do have an impact on the long-term effects of one's success. Money or birthright can elevate your class and provide you the privilege of access.
Consider the following scenario: In certain situations, a white child raised in poverty may have more opportunities or face less scrutiny because of being born white, but both the white child of poverty and the Latino child of privilege each face unique issues. In evaluating differences, shouldn't all differences including economic be explored for potential bias?
The premise of socioeconomic issues being a level of diversity does not ignore the complex history of the United States or the current issues of immigration affecting more than simply those crossing the borders of Texas, California, or Arizona. It is imperative to acknowledge miscegenation laws that placed blacks at the bottom of the class system, lower than white indentured servants who had lived peacefully with blacks before those laws.
My own parents, who were both born in Little Rock, Arkansas, were in high school during the time of the Little Rock Nine and experienced firsthand the racial tension, social upheaval, and civil unrest. Given that we are not yet a "post-racial" society as some may suggest, there must be an acknowledgment of systemic bias and overt or subtle racism that impacts under-represented groups regardless of their class. This premise only allows that diversity has many layers of complexity.
Even armed with education, navigating corporate America and the many unspoken rules can be challenging for anyone, but even more so for one with limited exposure, access, or sponsorship. Charles Murray explores the white lower class and the declining middle class in his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960"“2010. The privileged majority will remain powerful for many generations to come because of the wealth they hold, often due to the complicated acquisition of land by their forefathers that blacks and others, even those well educated and privileged, will never have access to. There is only so much prime oceanfront property to be acquired.
If you have already been exposed to travel, executive role models, and quality life and education, you may have a natural, authentic executive presence that provides you a head start. Family history or legacy can translate into appropriate connections. This could also be interpreted as the dark side of assimilation, but we know that mentoring is not enough; it's about sponsorship, who you know and who knows you. In most programs that want to see the advancement of the diverse population, participants tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored based upon access.
Most will need to seek their own sponsors outside of the structured talent management process. These are the relationships that form naturally when an executive is willing to tell you the real story, speak up for you in the succession meeting, give you that risky assignment, and be there if you fail because he or she feels a positive connection to you. When you are comfortable in a particular circle of people, this may be an invisible advantage. People like you or with the same experiences or lifestyle can be drawn to you regardless of race or gender or orientation without realizing why. When we talk about hiring in our own image, it's not always limited simply to race, gender, generation, or sexual orientation.
Everything practical tells us that we should pay attention to many dimensions of diversity, including some that don't commonly come to mind. In an age of cultural diversity, fast-paced ethnic growth, and increased understanding of the LGBT community, our socio-economic class is also a necessary part of what we bring to the table that defines how and who we are.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.