Having people from all backgrounds and walks of life on your team is a great thing, opening your company to more cultural awareness, ways of thinking and solving problems. So it's little surprise that, given that companies also have to be aware of discrimination laws, good leaders are making conscious attempts to inject as much variety as possible into their workforces.
But that doesn't mean the picture some people give you of their teams is accurate.
As in, you might not be able to trust the literal picture.
Last month, for example, Buzzfeed News accused men's lifestyle magazine GQ of doctoring an image of an article about Silicon Valley executives meeting in Italy--female CEOs Lynn Jurich and Ruzwana Bashir reportedly were photoshopped in. (Apparently just two women against 15 men is better than none...?)
This kind of behavior has been going on for a while, too. In 2000, for example, employees from the University of Wisconsin famously photoshopped Diallo Shabazz into a photo for the college's admissions booklet.
University of Denver Law School professor Nancy Leong refers to these instances as racial capitalism, as they allow individuals or groups to get value from the identity of other individuals or groups. And Julia Kanouse, CEO of the Illinois Technology Association, says that some of the motivation is that companies know how important a first impression is to potential hires. Because previous efforts to improve diversity have fallen short, businesses resort to forms of racial capitalism as a last ditch effort look more attractive and welcoming.
It's not always an obvious elephant in the room
While racial capitalism can be blatant, Kanouse also points out that not every case is as shocking as the examples above. They're often inconspicuous sins of omission.
"In most cases, the behavior isn't egregious. It tends to err on the side of making things look a little better than they are versus a full fabrication. For example, a company may only post photos from a company outing that include diverse employees (even if there are only a handful working at the company). Or share diversity statistics that include all functions and levels, failing to share that the tech team or leadership is 90% white men."
So the lesson is, when you're looking at companies for a new career, acquisitions or partnerships, you truly have to do your due diligence and get to know the businesses from a range of angles. This isn't the time to take everything at face value.
The silver lining
Misrepresentation of diversity happens as an "out" when companies fail to establish exceptionally clear diversity goals and go after them full force as an integral part of the company culture. But there are big companies trying to lead the way and give good examples of what active, aggressive pursuit of ambitious diversity objectives looks like. Facebook, for instance, wants half its American workforce to be from underrepresented groups by 2024. And Uber now is tying compensation for some senior leaders to its diversity goals.
"These are big steps in the right direction," Kanouse encourages. "The companies that are doing diversity and inclusion well see it as a strategic priority and treat it that way by giving it the same resources, structure and attention they would any other strategic initiative."
But make no mistake--you don't have to have hundreds of thousands of workers to be one of those model businesses. The collective behavior of small to mid-size companies can be just as big a catalyst for lasting change as the behavior of larger corporations. This is especially true given that smaller businesses are putting more competitive pressure on well-known organizations and serving as venues for talented workers to get footing and experience.
Ensuring your own correct impression
"It's important that leaders showcase and talk openly about the values they want to see replicated throughout the company," says Kanouse. "If leadership is open and honest about where the company stands today in terms of diversity and inclusion and, most importantly, has a plan in place on how they want to address it, employees will know real change is coming. It will also give them the talking points they need as they are recruiting new employees and talking externally about the steps the company is taking to improve diversity and inclusion."
And while diversity is critical, inclusion might be even more so, because it yields diversity as a natural consequence.
"No matter how good of a job you do recruiting diverse candidates into your workforce," Kanouse concludes, "if you don't have a culture that makes them feel welcome, they won't stay for long. Getting inclusion right - via your policies, guidelines, values - is a critical first step. If you have an inclusive culture and inclusive leaders, diversity will follow. As noted diversity advocate Vernā Myers puts it, 'Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.'"