Diversity Is Not Just a Business Issue

News Updates

ATLANTA—Speakers at Linkage’s 11th Annual Summit on Leading Diversity held here April 26-28, 2010, made it clear that diversity and inclusion issues affect people around the world, whether they are at work or school or from government or industry.

SuChin Pak, a journalist and news correspondent for MTV, planned to become a lawyer, what she called one of the “Asian trinity” of career paths: “doctor, lawyer or miscellaneous business person/engineer.” Her television career began by chance, after she appeared on camera during a Youth in Government conference when she was 16. Other opportunities, such as her role as a host of the PBS show “Newton’s Apple,” soon followed.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Pak moved to the United States at the age of five and was raised by traditional parents. Immigrants from earlier generations had to choose whether to be American or not, Pak said. “But I wanted to be both—the perfect Korean daughter and the perfect American success story,” she said during a keynote session. “I never rejected my culture.”

“Within this model minority myth of being Asian-American we’re often told to be quiet and appeasing and, more often than not, invisible,” she added. “And that’s how I lived my life.”

When Pak was growing up, an Asian-American who wanted to be on TV had few options: “You could be Connie Chung or you could be an extra on M.A.S.H.,” she quipped. And little has changed since then, she noted. “We talk about diversity initiatives but I look on TV and film and I don’t see many Asian people, people of color or larger people,” she said. “There is a sort of standard middle that we still subscribe to.”

Today, Pak said, she spends a lot of time travelling around the United States talking to young people about the power of diversity and representation in the media. Things are changing, she said, because of the impact of technology. “Technology is the greatest equalizer; it has opened the door for diversity,” she said.

Cross-Cultural Collaboration

“We live in a world that is increasingly integrated and interconnected,” with money, goods and people flowing continually, said Jean Christophe Bas, manager of strategic partnerships for the United Nations’ Alliance of Communities (AoC) during an April 26, 2010, session. For example, there are about 500 million migrants across the world, he said, which is a group that is equivalent to the size of the fourth largest country. “This tremendous flow of migrants is what will characterize the 21st century,” he predicted.

However, even as the world is becoming more interconnected, people are becoming more entrenched in their traditions, culture, identities and religion, Bas said. And that’s why the U.N. is interested in tapping into business leaders on the subject of diversity: “Multinational companies are really far ahead in their thinking, in their knowledge and in their practice of coping with diversity,” he said. “Sovereign states have very little capacity to cope with the global dimension of culture.

“There is a need for actors from the corporate sector, governments, civic society and the media to work together to incorporate the idea of diversity and complexity and to look together at innovative responses and innovative solutions,” he continued. “If we continue to work in silos the impact will be extremely limited,” compared to the impact businesses and governments can have when working in partnership.

The AoC, a group initiated by leaders in Spain and Turkey, was established in 2005 in order to “improve understanding and cooperative relations among nations and peoples across cultures and religions and to help counter the forces that fuel polarization and extremism.”

On April 6-7, 2009, Effenus Henderson, chief diversity officer for the forest products company Weyerhauser, and co-presenter of the Linkage session, attended the second AoC forum, held in Istanbul, Turkey and participated in a working session on “doing business in a multicultural world.”  He said that U.S.-based diversity professionals need to understand that there will be a need for:

  • Growing alignment of diversity, affirmative action, human rights and inclusion activities and goals around the world.
  • Increased connectedness of business operations, supply chains and worldwide communities.
  • Multi-stakeholder interest and engagement in business activities.
  • Engagement of those whose cultures, traditions and beliefs are different, in order to solve emerging global issues.
  • The use of diversity and multicultural strategies in all business decisions, rather than just those dealing with the composition of the workforce.

“Isolation is no longer an option,” he added.

A Changing Navy

As the demographics of the U.S. workforce change so too must the U.S. Navy, according to Capt. Kenneth J. Barrett, diversity director for the Chief of Naval Personnel. Because so many people are excluded from military service because of age, medical conditions and obesity, the Navy has a smaller talent pool to tap into than many employers. Moreover, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Gary Roughhead, has emphasized the importance of having a Navy that represents the diversity of the nation.

On the enlisted side, the Navy reflects the U.S. population, Barrett said during an April 28, 2010, session, but the officer corps is not reflective of the enlisted force it leads, which is an outcome Roughhead said he is seeking.

There are several challenges. For example, Barrett noted that every admiral the Navy will have for the next 30 years is already in the service. “You can’t just put someone in a higher position; you have to grow them,” he said. However, after identifying the career paths that are most likely to lead to positions such as jet pilot, the Navy has made systemic changes to ensure that women and people of color have the same opportunities to advance.

Many of those changes are helping to retain women, a group that the Navy was losing at a rate of two to one over men, according to Barrett. Most of the successful women are divorced or never had children, he noted, suggesting some women did not want to make certain sacrifices. Now naval personnel—male and female—can take a “career intermission” to have a child, complete a degree and the like without a negative impact on their career. Moreover, the Navy strives to place women in career-enhancing jobs while they are pregnant, to make sure they stay competitive.

Though the Navy can’t motivate its admirals to achieve diversity goals by offering a bonus as some organizations do, those who head divisions in the Navy are required to brief the chief of naval operations on their progress. Barrett said that such accountability, along with clear direction from the top and plenty of measurement, is helping the Navy make progress toward its goals.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.