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Unconscious Tokenism in the ‘C’ Suite


 Guilty or not Guilty? That is the question…

In a recent article, I made the case for Fairness-based Inclusion Solutions Fairness-based Inclusion Solutions as opposed to Guilt-driven Inclusion Initiatives. The difference in these two approaches can appear to be subtle but the difference in their impact is huge.

In an understandable bid to right the wrongs of the past, many professional service organisations (the focus of this article) are bending over backwards to show that they have changed or are changing. Their focus is often on generating evidence of such change: typically, through “inclusion initiatives” that set out to redress the balance of disproportionately under-represented minorities in white collar roles.

Let’s be clear: these efforts come from a good place. But we need to question the extent to which they are examples of “unconscious tokenism” from ‘C’ suites, driven by guilt and a desire to prove that this company ‘cares’, that it is different, in a good way.

What’s the alternative? I would argue that corporations wishing to do good in this space need to be thinking about long-term initiatives that address underlying barriers and that are truly win-win, i.e. rooted in the interest of both the disenfranchised ethnic minorities and the corporate ‘majority’.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Recruitment Initiatives

We are seeing more examples of recruitment initiatives that seek to signal a corporation’s commitment to increasing the number of ethnic minority hires and / or source a greater diversity of talent.

But we have to ask: how much of an impact do these measures really make on the underlying issues of inequality and unfairness? To make a real difference such initiatives must be underpinned by more radical, yet breathtakingly simple shifts in policy and corporate solutions. For instance: why not adopt a clear policy that requires job advertisements to openly encourage applications from the minority that the corporation has decided it wants to open up to.

By encouragement I don’t refer to the empty, generic ‘we are an equal opportunities employer…’ statement. This clearly hasn’t worked. Rather, why not try something like:

We need a more diverse work force. For this role we are actively encouraging applications from afro-Caribbean candidates as well as from others including [xxxx] who are also under-represented in our organisation.

Such inclusion initiatives are rooted in fairness and have a far-reaching impact on inclusion, welcoming graduates and job seekers from diverse underprivileged backgrounds, many of whom, to date view high profile professional services roles as unwelcoming to people that look, sound or speak like them.

Guilt-driven Statements and Gestures

In the wake of growing public anger around police killings in the United States, many corporations issued statements that expressed their horror at the situation; their solidarity with the oppressed and their commitment to diversity and inclusion. On one level this was encouraging and positive. But there was something performative about much of this. And, even more worrying, much of the corporate response appeared to be steeped in an attitude of “how can we (the ‘guilty perpetrator’) help them (the ‘poor hapless victims)?’.

This underlying sentiment is wrong because it traps us all in old ways of thinking and responding. We need to think about empowering and equipping the ‘subjects’ of bias and inadvertent exclusion. We need to give them the wherewithal to navigate inclusion issues bilaterally. They need to be collaborators in the solution as opposed to recipients of well-meaning gestures from those in charge.

The distance between fairness and guilt is not that far. Yet the collective corporate eagerness to ‘atone for the sins of our forefathers’ (even leaving aside more recent intransigence on inclusion matters), runs the risk of tokenism: of doing what makes everyone feel good in the short-term as opposed to doing what is most effective in the long term.

We need more openness, more dialogue and more real partnership. Those in the “C’ suite – and those advising them – need to regularly check whether inclusion initiatives are rooted in guilt or in genuine equity-based thinking. Only this will ensure that our corporate leaders do not become complicit in unconscious tokenism in their bid to do the right thing and preside over diverse winning teams.

– Buki Mosaku, founder of Diverse-City Think Tank, and RosAcad (Results Oriented Sales Academy)

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