The Diversity Inequality Problem

Measuring diversity as one broad category is doing a disservice to the advancement of Black talent, experts say.

About three years ago, the leader of a major global consumer packaged goods company put out a statement pledging to increase the firm’s pipeline of Black talent by 20%. Upon the target date of that pledge, the organization marked the occasion with a statement quoting the company’s leader, saying that its goal of increasing diversity in its talent pipeline by 20% had been achieved.

Notice the subtle difference between the two statements? The first talks specifically about Black talent, while the second speaks more broadly of diversity. Put another way, while the company was successful in diversifying its talent pipeline, that doesn’t necessarily mean it achieved its goal for Black talent specifically.

The above scenario isn’t real—but it certainly could be. To be sure, in the wake of the protests over racial injustice that have gripped the globe, Black corporate leaders and board members argue that measuring diversity as one broad category is doing a disservice to the advancement of Black talent. Brenda Lauderback, who serves as board chair of the restaurant chain Denny’s and sits on two other boards, says generalizing diversity can mask the progress, or lack thereof, of Black talent relative to other groups. “Women have come into C-suite and board roles much faster than Black executives as a result of diversity initiatives,” noted Lauderback while speaking on a Korn Ferry panel about how board directors can help eradicate racism in the corporate world.

Data shows that at the end of this year’s first quarter, female executives held 22% of director positions on the boards of Russell 3000 companies, gaining seats for the tenth straight quarter. Conversely, Black executives hold only 4% of the board seats at Russell 3000 companies, a figure that has pretty much remained stagnant since 2008. Moreover, legislation in the United States and Europe requires boards to have female representation, but no such requirement exists for Blacks, Asians, or Hispanics.

While no one is arguing against the advancement of women, Sheila Talton, CEO of the healthcare data firm Gray Matter Analytics and a director on the boards of Deere & Co., Sysco Foods, and OGE Energy, says the data underscores how a single diversity solution won’t work for individual groups. “The solutions are not all the same,” said Talton during the Korn Ferry panel discussion. Pointing to how Affirmative Action led to the mass hiring of Black talent at the turn of the century, Talton says she wants to see “some bold moves and significant hiring of Black talent at the bottom, middle, and top of organizations.” To advance that goal, she suggests tying executive compensation not only to overall diversity benchmarks but also to separate, specific goals for hiring Asians, Blacks, females, and Hispanics.

Korn Ferry’s chief diversity officer, Michael Hyter, applauds companies’ increased willingness to adopt programs designed to benefit the Black community specifically. Still, he cautions that outcomes are more important than pledges. “Organizations making pledges to hire and advance Black talent as well as investing in Black-owned businesses is encouraging,” says Hyter. “But it’s the actions and follow-up that will make the difference.”