Pushing the Boulder Uphill

Last week I had the honor of serving as a facilitator for the first ever White House Diversity & Inclusion in Government Summit, which brought together diversity and inclusion (D&I) leaders from the public and private sectors to share strategies for sustaining inclusion efforts in the federal government in the coming years. The event had been planned for several months, and you can imagine my initial excitement leading up to having this conversation when I’d hoped it would occur during the transition to America’s first woman President, someone who had dedicated herself to equality and social justice, and whom I know from personal experience had advanced diversity and inclusion efforts at the State Department.

Of course, that was not the environment in which the Summit would be taking place, and to be honest I instead went into the event with a feeling of helplessness. I think I speak for many people who care about D&I and who do work in this space when I say that I’ve been feeling like the boulder we have been pushing up hill for so long now is about to roll over us on its way back to the bottom.  So what could we possibly accomplish in one day that would make a difference?

What I found at the Summit gave me hope and a sense of empowerment. Energized and undaunted, my federal colleagues were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. We heard from senior government leaders, academic scholars, and private sector executives. The speakers shared stories of great success as well as statistics pointing out the urgency of continuing this work in a meaningful way.

Beth Cobert, Acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management (and my ultimate boss), gave a powerful presentation, saying “we cannot afford to leave talent and resources on the table.”

Among the success stories shared on progress made in diversity and inclusion,

  • In November 2016, the government not only met but exceeded President Obama’s goal of hiring 100,000 people with disabilities into the federal workforce over five years.
  • The Department of Agriculture (USDA) now uses blind applications that take out the names of candidates, which has led to a 50 percent increase in women in the Senior Executive Service. Not only is this an incredible accomplishment, it further underscores the existence of implicit bias in our organizational and social systems.
  • Following President Obama’s Executive Order in 2011 to foster Diversity and Inclusion efforts across every federal agency, the Federal Aviation Administration made a focused effort to diversity its recruitment efforts, resulting in a significant increase in job offers to Latino candidates and women.
  • [this was not shared at the Summit, but I believe is an important and often overlooked fact] As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton advanced policies to protect the rights of LGBTQ employees and U.S. citizens. Because of Clinton’s progressive policies, other agencies, including the Social Security Administration, adopted similar policies to protect the rights of LGBTQ employees.

We were also reminded that there is much to be done and diversity and inclusion efforts must continue to be a priority in our country. Dr. David R. Williams, Professor of African and African American Studies and Sociology at Harvard University and a leading scholar in linking race disparities to health and wellness, shared the following sobering statistics:

  • In 2015, African Americans earned 59 cents for every dollar Whites earned…the same disparity that existed in 1978. For those who argue that racial injustice doesn’t still exist in our country, the facts say otherwise.
  • Dr. Williams further argued that research indicates that high levels of gender and racial diversity lead to greater profitability and success for everyone. Homogeneous organizations are outperformed by diverse organizations that foster inclusive environments. Diverse teams that value inclusion are more innovative and adaptive to change, and experience higher levels of job satisfaction, morale, and engagement.
  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of our country will be majority minority by 2044. In fact, the population of children has already become a majority of racial and ethnic minorities, with over 50% of children under the age of 5 being non-White. That is our future workforce. Those are our future leaders. Those are the people who will need to be paying for Medicare and Social Security for the majority White aging population that will be retiring in the coming decades. So when we continue to allow this separatist paradigm, when we don’t question the racist and ethnocentric narrative that pervades our political, business, and social systems, we’re all literally only hurting ourselves.

At the Summit, attendees met in small groups to engage in constructive conversations on the biggest obstacles we face, namely:

  • Sustainability of diversity and inclusion efforts. Many leaders who answer the call to action for D&I efforts have a good deal of support and attention early on, but momentum fades after the initial couple of meetings or trainings, and they find themselves trying to shoulder these complex and time consuming efforts alone, with limited resources.
  • Lack of data to demonstrate return on investment. Often, diversity and inclusion efforts are relegated into the “nice to have” pile. D&I leaders do not have access to critical data points that can help them make the case to their bosses, peers, and employees that D&I is a strategic imperative.
  • Lack of top-down support. Often, leaders who make D&I a priority are people in human capital and human resources functions. They are either tasked by senior leaders to “do diversity” or they take such efforts on because of their dedication to the work. Without concerted, visible effort from the leaders at the top, these initiatives often end up being sidelined.
  • Many D&I leaders don’t have access to individuals who are leading D&I efforts in other agencies or sectors. The dearth of opportunities to share information, best practices, and lessons learned makes it especially challenging for D&I leaders to know where to turn for support.

After acknowledging the challenges, the groups spent the rest of their time collectively identifying promising strategies, including gathering and synthesizing data to make informed policy and procedure decisions related to D&I; embedding D&I into agency strategic plans with specific metrics; and strengthening relationships among agencies and between public and private sector D&I leaders.

One particular message that was clear: relegating D&I efforts only to EEO compliance training is not enough. It’s incumbent on government and private sector leaders to come together, to take a systemic and strategic approach to diversity and inclusion, embedding it into strategic plans, and engaging with elected officials to ensure they keep it a top priority.

Finally, we encouraged one another to not sit idly by, but stand up and demand that diversity and equity remain a priority as we move into the next four years. I think many of us entered the room with the same feeling of powerlessness, a fear that all of the gains we’ve made could be washed away with the stroke of a pen. But we left fired up and ready to get back to work. Make no mistake, we are rolling a boulder uphill, and the higher we get, the more resistance we’re going to feel; that’s the nature of culture change. The Summit reminded me that every time we move that boulder there’s more room behind us for more people to help us push, and if we’re successful in our work we’ll have all the help we need.




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