8/26/17

Was Ending Slavery a Good Business Decision?

I recently listened to the Sincerely, X podcast series co-presented by TED and Audible. The series shares true stories that the tellers feel are "too sensitive, painful or potentially damaging to share publicly" and so they share them anonymously. To be honest, I am not sure how I feel about the anonymous aspect of the series. But my focus today is the content of Episode 5: Equality Executive. In it, a corporate leadership consultant gives advice on how to create gender parity in the senior ranks of an organization. Her main thesis is that companies should treat achieving gender parity in their senior ranks the same way they would treat any good business decision, because that's what gender parity in the C-suite is -- a good business decision. For example, does a law firm just talk about getting more A-level clients, or does it put time, money, and human resources towards achieving that result because it wants to be more profitable? Usually the latter. And so, since gender parity is a good business decision, organizations need to treat it like one, giving it the mental, human, and financial attention it deserves.

Here are some excerpts from the talk:

  • "Thousands of leaders... realize that creating gender equality at every level within the organization isn't just a nice thing to do, but an absolute business imperative."
  • "Study after study shows that no matter how you torture the data, having women in the C-suite creates higher profitability, period."
  • "A recent study revealed that there are more CEOs in the S&P 1500 named John than there are women CEOs." (Ok, I just had to include this one. Apparently, if you want your child to be the CEO of a company, you should name him or her John.)
Do I believe that gender -- and I'll extend this to racial, religious, sexual orientation, etc. -- diversity in senior corporate ranks is important? Yes. Do I believe that such diversity in senior ranks is a good business decision? Yes. But I sure as heck don't believe that the reason you should build a diverse workforce is because it's a good business decision. I also don't believe you should build a diverse workforce because it's a nice thing to do, as the quotation above suggests. You should build a diverse workforce because it is the morally right thing to do.

Framing diversity as 'a good business decision' is, to quote James Cameron, "just male Hollywood [replace with organization name of choice] doing the same old thing." It's grading the value of diversity against a scale that traditional white male leaders created. By no means am I saying that business decisions should not take into account what's good for the business. But I am saying that decisions about whether human beings should be included at the table should be made because they are human beings, not because including them is a good business decision. Taken to the extreme, should we as a society have asked if ending slavery was a good business decision? Or should we have ended slavery because it is immoral to own human beings? 

Putting the efforts to create diversity in corporate senior ranks in the context of profitability is not only misguided, it opens the door for a company to discriminate by saying that in its case, diversity will not lead to profitability. I appreciate the good intention of this corporate leadership consultant, but her advice sends the wrong message to corporate.

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