Cut the excuses: Diversity takes work

“Organizations are realizing that actual diversity results takes effort and commitment, and can’t be waved away with an obligatory seminar and vague promises to do better. It comes down to making it a priority.”

Patriarchy, it’s time. You’ve had a good run there, turning a blind eye to diversity on one hand and trumpeting meritocracy on the other, as though both those things together means you’re so gosh-darn focused on quality that you just don’t see race, gender, or class. But the jig is up, and has been for a long time — the only difference is that in 2015 you’re going to have to do something about it, because it’s starting to be at best a headache and at worst a hit to your bottom line.

rachel-sklarThis year has brought issues of diversity and privilege to the forefront of the conversation — and with it, a lot of swift public outrage. That outrage, facilitated by social media, has for the first time, begun to reliably reach the inner sanctum. And suddenly, that inner sanctum has had to address it — uncomfortably, contritely, irritably, faux-apologetically, or maybe, just maybe, with the first real glimmer of awareness that when times are changing, leaders get out in front of that change.

That time seems to be, well, now. Organizations are getting caught flat-footed with all-male boards (hi Twitter!) and excruciating diversity numbers (don’t be evil, Google!), and the ensuing public pushback has prompted public hand-wringing (getting there, Microsoft!) and actual progress (lean in, Facebook!).

There’s a clear business case for diversity (duh — you are an idiot if you think the best decisions are arrived at by a slate of clones), but on a more urgent level, there’s a PR case and it’s that kind of pressure that accelerates the march of progress (well hello, GoDaddy). Organizations don’t like being subject to a barrage of angry tweets, and like it less when it balloons into boycotts and mainstream news stories (jury’s still out, Uber). Most of the time, the org braces for a few days and then the story passes, which is why we see lineups like The Wall Street Journal celebration of dudes in April and Web Summit in Dublin or, just this week, Business Insider’s all-white all-male list of Startups to Watch in 2015. But those of us who keep an eye on such things are seeing incremental change (Gigaom’s 22 percent women in this conference is still a serious improvement) — and even better, we’re starting to see other people keep an eye on such things. (See The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan ruminating over byline disparities. Of course that was in April, when The New York Times could boast a female top editor. A glass cliff sure can change a landscape!).

Ergo, quotas. Not out of generosity or an earnest commitment to changing the ratio — please, nothing hates change more than the status quo — but out of urgency. Organizations are realizing that actual diversity results takes effort and commitment, and can’t be waved away with an obligatory seminar and vague promises to do better. It comes down to making it a priority. And when something is a priority, it becomes someone’s job.

And lo! In November, I saw something that made my heart leap: Bloomberg went there. From Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler’s memo to staff: “All Bloomberg News enterprise work must include at least one woman’s voice, and preferably a balance of men and women. Women are engaged in every topic we cover. Our journalism should reflect that variety.”

This felt like a huge step — and one that will not only ease headaches for Busy And Impatient People In Charge but will also actually make that coverage better and smarter, because it will include a broader range of perspectives and thus stories, angles, and insights. So bravo, Bloomberg! I look forward to the spread of that ethos to the actual slate of Busy And Impatient People In Charge (Who No Doubt Got There On Merit). Baby steps.

I’ve been thumping this drum for years and years now, and I think we may have reached the tipping point where complacency cedes to proactivity and stubborn blinders are forced off by even more stubborn awareness. The word “diversity” may bring eyerolls (and if that’s you, mofo, check yourself because you’re perilously behind) but it’s also bringing headaches, and power doesn’t like headaches. (Hello from a headache! Happy to be here.) Upshot: The more someone like Satya Nardella takes the heat for bad diversity numbers, the more incentivized he will be to say to his managers: Fix this.

And guess what? “We tried!” is no longer an excuse. “We couldn’t find anyone qualified!” is no longer an excuse. “I asked my three white dude friends and they couldn’t think of anyone, but look, they suggested these other three white dudes, and oh, the merit!” is not only no longer an excuse but, honestly, just an embarrassment — so seriously, just keep that one to yourself. It’s not a question of “just checking a box” — because in 2014, we now know that the ranks of the under-represented and over-qualified are thick with great candidates. It’s a matter of making it a priority to find them, book them, list them, feature them, hire them, promote them, invest in them, cultivate them, and pay them.

The tide is turning. Hello, quotas! See you in 2015.