Experts Explain the Evolution of Diversity Programs

December 1, 1998
Anita Rowe and Lee Gardenswartz, partners in the Los Angeles diversity consulting firm Gardenswartz & Rowe, entered their line of work back in the 1970s. Both teachers at the time, they were yanked out of the classroom to assist the Los Angeles Unified School District through mandatory integration. They helped schools deal with the impact of change, teaching faculties how to serve students and families from different cultures and backgrounds than what they were used to.

In 1980, the two went into business for themselves. It’s a familiar career path for diversity consultants. “A lot of people developmentally have come to the diversity field from EEO, because that’s kind of the process the country went through legally,” says Rowe.

However, Gardenswartz and Rowe both have doctorates in human behavior, which isn’t necessarily common in the diversity consulting industry. It’s that background, says Rowe, that allows the well-respected duo to approach diversity in a multidisciplinary way -- using psychology, sociology, anthropology, business and education.

“It’s not just about affirmative action; it’s not just about EEO,” she says. “Diversity is much broader and deeper than that. For us, an inclusive definition makes everyone feel this is for them.”

The blur between affirmative action and diversity spurs problems.
There’s a huge and crucial difference between affirmative action and diversity, say diversity experts. Many are concerned with companies -- and consultants -- that mix the two fields together.

“Affirmative action means using an individual’s group identity as a criterion for making selection decisions,” says Janice Dreachslin, a Pennsylvania State University management professor and author of Diversity Leadership (Health Administration Press, 1996). “Valuing diversity assumes diversity is a strategic advantage. There’s a real difference between those two, yet oftentimes in training, those aren’t distinguished from one another.”

When that happens, training can end up focusing only on the gaps and differences that exist between men and women and minorities and non-minorities. It can become guilt-ridden (as in, women and minorities have been downtrodden for too long, we owe them) or condescending.

“It’s a bit patronizing,” says Richard Hadden, a Jacksonville, Florida, employee-relations consultant. “[We’re put in a situation where] it’s like, ‘Well what can we do to fix these poor black folk and poor women who obviously don’t really know very much about what’s going on because, poor things, they haven’t been given a chance.’”

"There's a real difference between (affirmative action and diversity), yet oftentimes in training, those aren't distinguished from one another," says Dreachslin.

Raising awareness doesn’t inspire change.
Lewis Griggs, trainer and creator of the much-touted Valuing Diversity series (McGraw-Hill Inc., 1994) for Corporate America knows this attitude is what gets many women and minorities riled up. “[The message] is, ‘I have the power and the privilege and the right to give you equal opportunity.’”

It’s affirmative action -- a controversial but arguably successful program in a well-intentioned, but inappropriate, diversity application, experts say. It’s an evolution that’s easy to understand, but is time to move away from.

Diversity experts have more explanations of how things have gone wrong. As far as charges of a simplistic diversity approach, many consultants say that’s what companies want.

Dreachslin says too many companies skip from one consultant to another when quick fixes don’t occur, and since most diversity programs start with the basic building block of awareness training, the company never gets past the bottom rung. Or the diversity consultant may be allowed to stay on, but not given enough autonomy, authority or involvement to push any real change through.

Companies base marketing judgments on stereotypes.
Another defense: Fred Lynch, author of The Diversity Machine: The Drive to Change the “White Male Workplace,” (Free Press, 1997) says many companies specifically look for programs that emphasize what he calls “identity politics,” the idea that a person’s race or gender is directly indicative of the way he or she thinks.

Why? Because with the global marketplace, many companies have spent a lot of money on the theory that Mexican Americans can produce and sell products to other Mexican Americans; that African Americans can work a similar magic with fellow African Americans. These companies have a stake in the belief that people of a certain race or gender think similarly, and they favor diversity programs that support that belief.

In short: Don’t be too quick to blame HR or your company for any shortcomings in your diversity program, but don’t be too quick to attack the diversity consultants, either. Problems, like people, come in all shapes and sizes.

Workforce, December 1998, Vol. 77, No. 12, p. 32.