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To increase workforce diversity, focus on these 10 opportunities


In the years since the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements began, organizations have pledged to improve the diversity of their workforces, close the gender pay gap, and foster inclusive environments.

Sometimes, organizations are successful, writes Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, a behavioral and data scientist and faculty chair of the Executive Leadership Research Initiative for Women and Minority Attorneys at Harvard Law School.

But “just as often, after declaring their intentions and investing significant resources, hiring and retaining diverse talent remains elusive and unrealized,” according to Cecchi-Dimeglio. “Such outcomes can leave organizations frustrated or inclined to stop their efforts to diversify.”

In this excerpt from her new book, “Diversity Dividend,” Cecchi-Dimeglio outlines 10 focus areas to help leaders and organizations successfully remove bias and support a diverse workforce by tapping the power of artificial intelligence and big data.

The excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.


To benefit an organization and become part of a company’s strategic advantage, women, people of color, and individuals from other underrepresented groups have to be intentionally welcomed, integrated fully into the organization, and sustained. They must be purposely supplied with the same or equalizing information, connections, skills, projects, and support that are provided to others within the organization. Inequalities must be recognized, and intervening actions must be devised to nudge these conditions in a manner that creates equality and inclusivity. Companies that win at diversity design processes that are advantageous and level the playing field for everyone.

Clearly, earning diversity’s dividend can seem elusive. Organizations may attract diverse talent to a hiring webpage, but often that talent does not feel they should apply for the posted position. If they do apply and are hired, women and people from underrepresented groups may leave the organization before being promoted. Throughout my research, consulting, writing, and experimentation, 10 points along the career trajectory stand out as places where specific kinds of nudges and interventions can support the goal of building and sustaining a diverse workforce. These include:

  1. Attracting diverse talent. Converting appropriate talent to applicants and candidates requires additional outreach and cultivation. Diverse talent may enter the process from disadvantaged positions, with fewer examples of people like themselves in the positions advertised, fewer contacts at competitive employers, and fewer people to help them navigate the application process.
  2. Recruiting diverse talent. A company may provide resources and strategies to candidates so that they can be ready for interviews. In addition, companies can extend information and connections that enable candidates to get a feel for the workplace and better envision their possibilities.
  3. Onboarding diverse talent. A fair onboarding process accounts for the fact that different gender, racial, national, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic groups have different numbers and levels of connections. During onboarding and moving forward along the career trajectory, organizations should intervene to build the necessary size and strengthen the quality of networks for these often less-connected hires.
  4. Skill building. Women, people of color, individuals with disabilities, and other underrepresented people generally have more limited networks and slower access to information within an organization. The information they are able to access indicates a dead end. Clarity and accuracy about which courses or modules of additional training or types of projects are required for which promotion paths removes the mystery and prevents the loss and damage that accompany the departure of employees.
  5. Office drudgery. Women and people of color have histories of being compelled to perform drudge work. Excessive assignments of this kind of work can stagnate an employee. Pushback can create a backlash or get an individual branded as “not a team player.” There are many fair and transparent ways to balance the distribution of the office drudgery. Interventions that spread the drudgery ensure that no one person or group is treated with bias.
  6. Flexibility and well-being. COVID-19 has compelled organizations to improve communication in all directions and to quickly invent or mainstream flexibility and well-being options and policies. These changes foster a sense of trust and inclusion, and they support the retention of women and individuals from underrepresented groups.
  7. The pay gap. Unequal pay perpetuates unequal access. It also reduces employee morale and drives attrition. In this particular space, AI is a useful tool for circumventing bias and ensuring that talent is fairly and equally paid.
  8. Credit and organization. Interventions that create equitable, accurate attributions support the career trajectories of all employees. They advantage the workplace for women and people of color. The outcomes better position them at promotion time. Equally significant, when employees trust that their efforts will be accurately credited, innovation flourishes and companies develop a stronger portfolio of intellectual property.
  9. Feedback, performance, and promotion. Specific adjustments and interventions are still required, but getting these processes right can soften the challenges and anxieties associated with the annual performance review. These actions include documenting employees’ roles and contributions and other steps that make the process seamless and transparent. Companies can use an AI tool to resolve biases and engage big data in the feedback and performance review process.
  10. Networking, mentorship, and sponsorship. Leveling the playing field entails enriching and expanding the networks of women and people of color. It requires accelerating their entry into the network, ensuring that their location in the network is advantageous, and selecting connections to drive their careers forward. Through mentoring or strategic sponsorship, individuals are further networked and connected.

Excerpted from “Diversity Dividend,” by Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio. © 2023 Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio. Reprinted by permission of The MIT Press. All rights reserved.

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