Workplace Diversity

By Guy Higgins

I recently came across two articles. The first, Yes, your kid will do something with that philosophy degree after all, was a newspaper column that addressed the potential power of a classic liberal arts education. The second was condensed from McKinsey’s report on Women in the Workplace 2017 and looked at how women are faring in corporate careers.

I had intended to post about the column on liberal arts educations because I think that the knowledge acquired from liberal arts curricula is important. It can help people develop their critical thinking skills, be more effective leaders (and followers) and add cognitive diversity to the workplace. The McKinsey report, on the other hand, made me want to scream. I’ve posted numerous times that the classic approach to improving diversity in the workplace is inadequate and hasn’t worked well, if at all. The McKinsey report observes that workplace diversity is improving only slowly and may, in fact, be stalling, which supports my thinking that the classic approach isn’t working). I think that there is definitely something about liberal arts educations that can contribute to fixing stalled diversity programs. The McKinsey report goes on to recommend the following (I will be annotating the recommendations with my thoughts and questions in italics):

Companies need a comprehensive plan for supporting and advancing women. Building on findings from previous years — and incorporating new insights into what top-performing companies are doing — companies should start with these core actions:

  • Make a compelling case for gender diversity. I agree to some extent, but in the past, that compelling case seems to have centered around “fairness” and doing “the right thing.” The real compelling case that should be made is describing how gender diversity can be a factor in cognitive diversity and how to put that cognitive diversity to work to improve company performance.
  • Invest in more employee training. I just can’t help myself:, training on what? I agree that employees will need significant training, but it has to be focused on answering, “what’s the diversity WIIFM” for the employees and the company and how to benefit from diversity.
  • Ensure that hiring, promotions, and reviews are fair. I can’t help myself again. Are there any companies out there whose leaders believe that their hiring, promotion and review processes aren’t fair?
  • Give employees the flexibility to fit work into their lives. I agree, but might this be perceived as a concession to women (who are generally considered to have more conflicting priorities in life)? If so, it could be counterproductive.
  • Focus on accountability and results. Again, I agree, but there has to be a process to put diversity to work to achieve the results. Simply expecting it to happen is nonsense.

First, and most importantly, these recommendations are essentially the same recommendations that have been made in the past. As Albert Einstein observed, “Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” So, if companies are, at best, only slowly improving diversity with this kind of approach, why continue doing it and expecting better results? It seems to me that, if the approach isn’t working, companies should try a different approach. I’ll get to my thoughts on that approach later in this post. Before that, I want to briefly address McKinsey’s report and recommendations.

McKinsey observes that women are hired at a lower rate than men even though more women earn college degrees than do men. However, let’s look at the statistics with a little more granularity. As reported by the American Enterprise Institute, among the twenty highest paying jobs, women earned the majority of degrees in only one area – nursing. Looking at the top fifty highest paying jobs, men earned 53.7% of all degrees awarded. Companies hire people who they think have educations that align best with the core of their business – and they pay those people more than people with educations that do not align with the core of their business. Therefore, although women earn more college degrees than do men, men earn more degrees in those areas that seemingly align with the needs of business.

Second, the summary of the McKinsey report lumps all college degrees and all corporate jobs together. This creates, I think, a more subtle effect. In striving to improve their corporate (identity) diversity numbers, companies tend to hire women into jobs such as PR, Human Resources, Legal Counsel, and Customer Relations. These are important and responsible jobs, but they are seldom core to a business or on the career track to the majority of senior executive positions. There is little or no effort to leverage cognitive diversity by including these women in decisions and projects outside their “job description.” Recall that leveraging cognitive diversity means taking advantage of as much different knowledge as practical. Many times, women hired into those non-core career tracks either stagnate or leave the company. That, in turn, contributes to the stagnation of the diversity statistics and should have been pointed out by McKinsey.

I’ll boldly draw a conclusion about the McKinsey report from the above snapshot of the data. McKinsey isn’t doing a very good job of analyzing the data. Corporate executives are most likely to be drawn from the higher paying jobs – and that’s where the majority of the population of college graduates is male. Boards of Directors tend to select the most senior executives from the career tracks that are viewed as core to the corporate business, and those are seldom the same career tracks that many women are hired into. Therefore, McKinsey has not, I will assert, actually identified the root causes for the failure of many companies to improve the diversity of their workforce – they’re measuring how many women they have in various positions rather than measuring how company performance has improved because there are women in those various positions. That’s hard to do, but McKinsey should do a better job.

None of that says that women don’t encounter biases in some companies.   Nor does it say that leaders should not continue to work to develop more diverse workforces, but, as I’ve said many times, successfully developing a more diverse workforce needs a different approach, and as I said above, I’ll come back to that.

Now, liberal arts degrees turn out to be the forty-fifth highest paying major. One of the advantages of a liberal arts degree is that the graduate has developed a broad knowledge base – one that will support job-specific learning and performance across a wide range of fields. While I wouldn’t hire a liberal arts major to design a bridge, I could see hiring one to manage the actual design project. Liberal arts degrees also provide a solid foundation for further education in career-specific domains. Mayhaps corporations should assign more value to liberal arts degrees. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of job postings that state a four-year degree is required, but they don’t specify the degree field, nor do the postings make any attempt to correlate a degree to the actual job to be done. Again, corporations might want to consider assigning more value to a liberal arts degree rather than accepting some of the vanity degrees (e.g. a BA with a major in underwater basket weaving) now being awarded by universities.

The column I cited earlier highlights the advantages of a broad liberal arts education and how that breadth provides that solid foundation for a wide range of careers. The column touches on the power of critical thinking, problem solving and the diversity of subject matter provided by the liberal arts cirricula. The various statistical reports I’ve dug up indicate that women dominate in the liberal arts. That means that they have the potential to make significant contributions to corporate cognitive diversity. Corporations need to be thinking about the opportunities being missed in not putting more emphasis on liberal arts degrees and the women who have earned them (foot stomp).

Getting back to McKinsey and improving diversity – if you want someone to do something (say hire people with a goal of achieving a more diverse workforce), one of, if not the most important, step is to explicitly answer the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) question. This goes back to the McKinsey recommendation to develop a compelling case for “gender diversity” (which, in actuality, should be cognitive diversity). So I want to tackle that first.

Diversity and WIIFM – The question is not an easy one, because, while the data show that companies with a more identity-diverse workforce (a workforce with people who categorize themselves by race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) out perform those with a workforce that is less diverse, I’ve been unable to find a plan or algorithm or recipe for how they actually achieve that improved performance. Many companies seem to be hiring for identity diversity and hoping that their performance will magically improve. That’s like placing flour, sugar, milk, eggs and chocolate on the kitchen counter and hoping that they will spontaneously “cake-ize.” Maybe the companies that experience improved performance do see the results as the spontaneous result of an identity-diverse workforce, but I suspect that those companies are ones that have processes that are more “friendly” to individuals – processes that don’t put all pegs in round holes.

The trick, as I’ve previously posted, is to focus on cognitive diversity, even though the world focuses on identity diversity. Unfortunately, the way people identify themselves is of little use in answering WIIFM for the company. The only thing there is that it may help avoid occasional bad publicity. A person’s skin color, ancestry or gender, by itself, provides little competitive benefit to a company or other organization. The data shows that if you have a great deal of identity diversity, you are likely (but not guaranteed) to have significant cognitive diversity. But again, it’s not about the numbers of women or Asians or Irishmen, but how the company takes advantage of the cognitive diversity that those people can bring to the table. Going back to McKinsey’s recommendations – it’s not about “accountability and results,” but about accountability and corporate performance improvements because of the increased and effective use of cognitive diversity. 

Corporations should use cognitive diversity as a factor in hiring and promoting people. While you can’t measure cognitive diversity directly, you can use a mix of measurable traits such as:

  • Introverts and extroverts
  • Pessimists and optimists
  • Men and women
  • Different ethnic backgrounds/ancestry
  • Different life experiences
  • Different educational experiences (e.g. majors, geographic locations)

Bringing all these ingredients to the table will not, spontaneously, create improved performance—companies will need to learn to lead and manage in ways that permit cognitive diversity to manifest itself and create better ideas, better solutions and better performance. I’ve posted on approaches to leveraging cognitive diversity in the past, so I won’t extend this (already long) post.

In closing, companies that want to improve their performance need to hire and promote cognitively diverse people – that includes people with those broad liberal arts degrees. In fact, I think that every company in the country should have one graduate of St John’s College (which offers only classic liberal arts degrees) in Annapolis, Maryland – even though they have beaten my alma mater 28 straight years in croquet (I’ll bet you didn’t even know that croquet is an intercollegiate sport).





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