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Companies have invested billions in DEI. Why isn’t it helping Black workers?

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The Value Gap is a MarketWatch interview series about confronting inequality that features business leaders, academics, policy makers and activists.

Over the last several years, a lot of American companies started talking about race. 

Hundred of brands posted about the Black Lives Matter movement on Instagram. Other companies pledged billions toward fighting for racial justice. Many executives joined a growing chorus of corporate leaders who publicly avowed their companies’ commitments to and investments in diversity, equity and inclusion. 

But despite the rise of the multi-billion-dollar DEI industry — and amid the ensuing conservative backlash — Black professionals are still on unequal footing in the workplace, according to one sociologist’s research. 

Racial disparities were once the result of explicit policy and discrimination — think “Whites Only Need Apply” signs — but today, it’s subtle cultural processes that lead to unequal outcomes for Black workers, Adia Harvey Wingfield, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of “Gray Areas: How the Way We Work Perpetuates Racism and What We Can Do to Fix It,” argues in her book.

It’s in those “gray areas,” the sociologist says, that racism lurks. 

HarperCollins

Wingfield, who talked to more than 200 Black professionals for her research, said those processes can be harder to change. But focusing on the gray areas will help organizations recruit and support Black workers more effectively, matching their diversity mission statements with action, she said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MarketWatch: What led you to study racial disparities in the workplace? 

Wingfield: One of the things that I think about a lot with work is that you have this space that seems to be, on the face of it, very neutral, right? We have this idea that if you go to work and you do your best job, you’ll get rewarded, you’ll get promoted and things will work out. But what a lot of research shows is that it’s not quite that straightforward. 

A lot of the existing inequalities that happen in society actually map onto what happens in workplaces. That made me curious about what those practices are and how they have an impact on Black workers to make it more complicated, and often more difficult, for them to thrive and succeed in their work environment. 

MarketWatch: You talk in your book about the sizable diversity industry and all the new, vocal commitments from companies in the last few years to cultivate DEI within their organization and beyond. How effectively have those addressed racial inequality in the workplace? 

So-called gray areas are “ambiguous and unregulated, and they’re the areas where it’s relatively easy for racial disparities to thrive,” says Adia Harvey Wingfield, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Adia Harvey Wingfield

Wingfield: We’re at this place in society where — and I’m going to show my age here — but it’s not the ’80s or the ’90s, where it’s a fight or a struggle to even talk about issues related to race and diversity in the workplace. It’s pretty common. I think most companies now will have some sort of statement on their website about how they’re committed to diversity. Most major companies have either someone in diversity management or they require some diversity training. 

But when we look at the data, we know that the top ranks of virtually all industries remain very racially segregated, whether we’re talking about finance; government; or my own industry, academia. I wanted to think about how both of those things can be true: Why do we have companies now that will say this is something that matters to them, but not see results? 

We are at a place now where we can talk more openly about diversity, but we haven’t necessarily addressed some of the mechanisms that are perpetuating [inequality]. That’s what I try to talk about in “Gray Areas”: how the social, cultural and relational parts of work contribute to this racial inequality. They’re ambiguous and unregulated, and they’re the areas where it’s relatively easy for racial disparities to thrive.

MarketWatch: How do these gray areas function in the workplace? 

Wingfield: I think of these gray areas as the parts of work that are related to how we work, but they’re not necessarily explicitly inscribed in our jobs. 

So my job is that I’m a college professor. If you look at my contract, that requires research, teaching and service. What my contract doesn’t spell out is that if I want to experience any mobility [in my career], I need to have really solid relationships with other people in my profession so that they can write recommendation letters and nominate me for awards and for proposals.

My job [description] doesn’t specify that if I want to do well, I need to understand the organizational culture at my workplace and to make sure that I’m conforming to it. My contract doesn’t specify that if I want to advance, then I need to have relationships with people who can be mentors or sponsors who can [help] that advancement by advocating for me in spaces where I might not necessarily be present. 

All those are pretty general and basic parts of most workplaces, but none of them are explicitly defined or specified as part of your job. Those are the gray areas. Those are the cultural and social parts of work. They have a pretty outsized impact on how people work, but they’re not usually clearly defined. What I wanted to do with the book was to highlight those processes, and the ways in which they have a lot of opportunity to create challenges and setbacks for Black workers. 

“‘Think about … how much hiring relies in our present day on relationships, networks and connections — being able to know somebody who knows somebody. But we also know that our social networks are very racially homogenous. ’”

— Adia Harvey Wingfield

MarketWatch: Why do you think racism lingers in these places, specifically? 

Wingfield: I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that we have seen some legislative progress towards eliminating explicit or overt racial inequality and discrimination. The other thing is that when it comes to these spaces that I’m talking about, it becomes easier for people to fall back on what they know. Think about hiring processes, and how much hiring relies in our present day on relationships, networks and connections — being able to know somebody who knows somebody. But we also know that our social networks are very racially homogenous. 

If your employee base is predominantly white, chances are the people that they are going to refer, because of the way that our social networks are set up, are also going to be predominantly white. This isn’t because people may intentionally be discriminating! I think in most cases, they’re not. They’re relying on practices that seem familiar, but those are still processes that can make it more difficult for organizations to diversify.

MarketWatch: What are some other examples of how these gray areas might take shape and create challenges for Black employees? 

Wingfield: One of the interesting ones has to do with Brian, a film executive. I really like to emphasize Brian’s case because it underscores organizational culture and how much that can be a challenge for Black workers, even in seemingly left-leaning industries and professions. If you think about the film industry, Hollywood certainly has a reputation for being very progressive. Brian is an example of somebody who went to work at a studio that really espouses these progressive values, at least online [and publicly]. One of the things that he said he was told when they were hiring him was that they were bringing him in because they were interested in telling different stories and new ideas and covering ground they had previously. 

But what Brian found when he got to the studio was that the organizational culture was what I refer to as a market-based culture. They were one that was very focused on market share of financial return and bottom line. This proved to be very incompatible with their goal of telling diverse stories. When Brian pitched stories to his leaders about the breadth and nuance of aspects of life in the Black community, what leaders would often fall back on was, “Well, Black stories don’t really sell. We can’t really make any money pitching and promoting movies by or about Black people.”

Now, that’s not actually the case, but it also shows how this organizational culture of being very market-driven and market-based, even in a progressive industry, created an environment that became very frustrating for Brian. It inhibited his ability to do the job that he was actually hired to do. And shortly after several repeated frustrations along that line, he ended up leaving the company. 

I think it’s critical for companies to move towards this direction of being color-conscious in a way that allows them to recognize the reality of racial inequality in our society, but also to make sure that their organizations are not places that are replicating [inequalities].

MarketWatch: How can individuals and organizations address these “gray areas”? What do solutions look like? 

Wingfield: I think it’s really useful to be a reference and make it a point to refer and suggest Black workers for potential positions. We’ve talked just now about how much your connections and networks matter, and the ability to refer Black workers can go a long way in terms of making sure that people have a foot in the door. 

When it comes to organizational culture, especially if people are operating in cultures that are colorblind, I think it’s really important to speak up and speak out. That can go both ways: if you see people who are deriding the importance of having a more diverse workplace, speak up in support of taking those steps. But it can also mean speaking up when people aren’t saying anything about diversity — reminding people that it is important and it is good for business.

I also think it’s useful to be a sponsor, especially if you’re in a leadership role. Often what happens when sponsorship and mentorship roles are left to flourish organically is that people gravitate towards people that they perceive to be like them — and again, that often occurs along racial lines. But if people make it an intentional point to broaden who they may want to advocate for when it comes to mobility, that also can have implications for how we diversify the top ranks of organizations.

One of the people that I made a point to include in “Gray Areas” is the story of [a financial executive]. And he benefited from a lot of organizational processes and policies that strove to put these ideas into place: having a broader recruitment network, having mentoring programs in place that were available for everybody, having a company culture that shifted while he was working there to focus more explicitly on how issues of race may be present in the workplace. He spoke really openly about how much that allowed him to thrive.

There’s data that documents that these steps actually work — and they can make our organizations places that don’t have to be so unreflective of our broader society.

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