Tag Archives: diversity

Correlation Isn’t Causation–But It’s Suggestive

Well, well. Speaking of “emerging data,” as I frequently do, there’s some pretty fascinating information coming out about corporate boards and diversity.

I get a daily business/markets newsletter from Axios .A recent one compared the earnings of companies with different board compositions–the percentages of non-whites and women, and the largest age ranges of those sitting on the governing boards of those companies. (Click through to see a nifty little chart.) And while the report was careful to point out that the results showed correlation, not causation, those results were certainly intriguing.

By the numbers: As a cohort, the companies with more women on their boards saw the smallest year-over-year drop in revenue growth in 2020.

And a group of companies with board members whose ages spanned over 30 years saw an improvement in revenue growth compared to the prior year. The rest saw growth slow.

The businesses with at least 30% of seats filled by non-white executives saw a bigger jump in revenue growth. However, those that had between 20% and 30% non-white board executives fared worse than those with fewer non-white members.

BoardReady cautions that this data might be skewed because so few companies have enough non-white executives on their boards to meet that threshold.

 BoardReady used revenue as a yardstick — rather than profits or other markers— in order to avoid distortions of the data due to various adjustments companies made during the pandemic.

So far, efforts by legislators and regulators to encourage more diverse representation on corporate boards have had a relatively limited impact, although the numbers are inching up. (According to the report, women made up 28% of all S&P 500 corporate board members last year, up from 16% in 2010.)

A 2019 Webforum article written by one corporate executive makes the business case for increased inclusion and a broad definition of diversity:

We live in a complex, interconnected world where diversity, shaped by globalization and technological advance, forms the fabric of modern society. Notwithstanding this interconnectedness, there is also growing polarization – both in the physical and digital worlds – fuelled by identity politics and the resurgence of nationalist ideals.

Not surprisingly, our workplaces tend to mirror the sociocultural dynamics at play in our lives outside work. Having built and scaled a multinational enterprise over nearly two decades, I’ve learned that diversity in the workplace is an asset for both businesses and their employees, in its capacity to foster innovation, creativity and empathy in ways that homogeneous environments seldom do. Yet it takes careful nurturing and conscious orchestration to unleash the true potential of this invaluable asset.

In this era of globalization, diversity in the business environment is about more than gender, race and ethnicity. It now includes employees with diverse religious and political beliefs, education, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientation, cultures and even disabilities. Companies are discovering that, by supporting and promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace, they are gaining benefits that go beyond the optics.

The author argues that bringing together people of different ethnicities and different life experiences is a key driver of innovation, and he cites the increasingly varied foods we eat every day, the most  successful musical genres (jazz, rock’n’roll, hip-hop) and other innovative aspects of contemporary life as “products of cultural amalgamation.”

Of course–as data I’ve reported upon previously amply confirms–that’s the problem. Resistance to inclusion (not just in boardrooms but in venues of all kinds) is best understood as a visceral and very negative reaction to “cultural amalgamation.”

In fact, cultural amalgamation and the frantic resistance to it are at the root of most of the fault-lines that run through our politics, retard the diversification of boardrooms, and create and fuel social discord. Proponents of capitalism and market economies give lip service to their fidelity to the bottom line, but thus far most companies have turned out to be part of–or at least in thrall to– the cultural resistance.

Time will tell whether performance reports like these move the needle, and whether “It’s the economy, stupid” should really be “It’s the culture, stupid.”

 

In Case The Racism Wasn’t Clear Enough…

There’s something to be said for clarity.

As the United States barrels toward an election that will determine whether we remain wedded to a set of unrealized but morally-appropriate ideals about equality, the focus of that election has steadily narrowed. November will be about one thing: White Nationalism and the continued privileging and social dominance of white male “Christians.”

Short of producing yard signs with swastikas, the Trump campaign has done everything it can to convey that message–and in Tuesday’s first “debate,” Trump’s refusal to disavow white nationalism made it explicit. (“Debate” is in quotes, because Trump’s rants and bullying prevented anything that could be considered a genuine debate.)

The GOP has disdained issuing a platform, making it clear that obedience to the party’s “Dear Leader” was the only plank that mattered. Then the campaign echoed Trump’s rant against the accurate teaching of American history–especially about slavery– and his insistence that teachers should engage in patriotic indoctrination rather than education.

More recently still, just in case there was a Neo-Nazi somewhere in rural America who missed the message (is there a backwoods area where Fox can’t penetrate?), he ordered an immediate cessation of diversity training in federal agencies, and followed that with a similar edict covering federal contractors. As Talking Points Memo reports:

President Donald Trump increased the scope of his assault against the government’s anti-racism workplace trainings on white privilege on Tuesday night with an executive order banning government contractors from holding the trainings.

In the order, Trump claimed that trainings that discuss the disproportionate amount of power afforded to white men “perpetuates racial stereotypes and division and can use subtle coercive pressure to ensure conformity of viewpoint.”

“Such activities also promote division and inefficiency when carried out by Federal contractors,” the order said.

The contractors thus “will not be permitted to inculcate such views in their employees,” according to the order.

Trump touted the ban on Twitter on Tuesday.

These sessions–common in corporate and business environments–are intended to improve communication and understanding among employees who bring different cultures and life experiences to the workplace. (Well done, they improve both employee morale and productivity–outcomes of absolutely no interest to Trump, since they don’t line his pockets or advance his egocentric agenda.)

It is unlikely that this most recent “edict” is legally enforceable. Absent corruption (which in this administration cannot be taken for granted) government contracts are awarded to companies that respond to RFPs–Requests for Proposals. Those RFPs set out the qualifications required by the contracting agency, and it’s a fair bet that none of the RFPs to which current contractors responded contained a provision that the contractor could not offer diversity training to its employees.

But enforceability and legality are beside the point here.

In much the same way that Trump’s issuance of meaningless “Executive Orders” aren’t legally effective, the bans on diversity training are a type of “performance art.” The Executive Orders are intended to convince his largely civically ignorant base that he is keeping his various promises–to build a wall, protect pre-existing conditions, forbid Muslims from entering the country, etc. The ban on anti-racist training and the attack on teaching accurate history are intended to reassure his largely racist base that he is with them.

It’s a very dangerous game.

Law enforcement agencies–including the FBI– have warned that alt-right organizations are actively trying to foment a race war. 

A report by the Brookings Institution explains a right-wing effort called “accelerationism.”

Accelerationism is the idea that white supremacists should try to increase civil disorder — accelerate it — in order to foster polarization that will tear apart the current political order. The System (usually capitalized), they believe, has only a finite number of collaborators and lackeys to prop it up. Accelerationists hope to set off a series of chain reactions, with violence fomenting violence, and in the ensuing cycle more and more people join the fray. When confronted with extremes, so the theory goes, those in the middle will be forced off the fence and go to the side of the white supremacists.

Obviously, not every Trump voter is a conscious part of that White Supremacy movement–but every Trump vote will support it.

 

 

Cities And Democracy

Jane Jacobs was one of the great urban theorists of the twentieth century, and an enormously provocative thinker. (Her Systems of Survival is one of my all-time favorite books–in my opinion, right up there with the Death and Life of Great American Cities.) 

A recent article about Jacobs focused on a less-well-known aspect of her work: her abiding concern about the fragility of democracy.

As the author noted,

Urban life was Jacobs’s great subject. But her great theme was the fragility of democracy—how difficult it is to maintain, how easily it can crumble. A city offered the perfect laboratory in which to study democracy’s intricate, interconnected gears and ballistics. “When we deal with cities,” she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense.” When cities succeed, they represent the purest manifestation of democratic ideals: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” When cities fail, they fail for the same reasons democracies fail: corruption, tyranny, homogenization, overspecialization, cultural drift and atrophy.

The article began with a description of an Appalachian village–Higgins, North Carolina–where Jacobs’ aunt was a social worker. The town was a depressing example of decline, an example of civic failure that evidently deeply concerned Jacobs.

In a year when American democracy has courted despotism, Jacobs’s work offers a warning and a challenge. Her goal was never merely to enlighten urban planners. In her work she argued, with increasing urgency, that the distance between New York City and Higgins is not as great as it seems. It is not very great at all, and it is shrinking.

Jacobs’ first book, Constitutional Chaff was a compilation of failed proposals from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, such as a third house of Congress and direct election of a Senate that never went out of session. In the introduction to the book, Jacobs argued that this diversity of conflicting perspectives “reflected the soul of American democracy as vividly as the ratified document itself did.”

In her “magnum opus,” The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs argued that a city–or for that matter, a neighborhood– absolutely requires diversity: “diversity of residential and commercial use, racial and socioeconomic diversity, diversity of governing bodies (from local wards to state agencies), diverse modes of transportation, diversity of public and private institutional support, diversity of architectural style.”  She also insisted that concentrating numbers of people in relatively small areas, far from being problematic, is the foundation of healthy communities. Dense, varied populations are desirable, Jacobs wrote,

because they are the source of immense vitality, and because they do represent, in small geographic compass, a great and exuberant richness of differences and possibilities, many of these differences unique and unpredictable and all the more valuable because they are.

If vitality comes from diversity, decline comes from homogeneity. Early indicators of decline in places like Higgins–a decline we increasingly see in small towns across many states, including Indiana–are :

“cultural xenophobia,” “self-imposed isolation,” and “a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit … to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backwards to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.” She warns of the profligate use of plausible denial in American politics, the idea that “a presentable image makes substance immaterial,” allowing political campaigns “to construct new reality.” She finds further evidence of our hardening cultural sclerosis in the rise of the prison-industrial complex, the prioritization of credentials over critical thinking in the educational system, low voter turnout, and the reluctance to develop renewable forms of energy in the face of global ecological collapse.

The article’s conclusion brings the lesson home.

No reader of Jacobs’s work would be surprised by the somewhat recent finding by a Gallup researcher that Donald Trump’s supporters “are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones.” These zones are latter-day incarnations of Higgins: marooned, amnesiac, homogenous, gutted by the diminishment of skills and opportunities. One Higgins is dangerous enough, for both its residents and the republic to which it belongs. But the nation’s Higginses have proliferated to the point that their residents have assumed control of a major political party.

Assuming voters successfully “vote blue no matter who,” one of the multitude of daunting tasks a new administration must undertake is the rescue of small-town America.

I have no idea how.

 

The Science of Stereotypes

When you look at the history of human conflicts, it sometimes seems as if most of them can be boiled down to battles of “us versus them”–however the relevant combatants are defining “us” and “them.”

Anyone who is, or has ever been, part of a group marginalized by a particular society knows the sting of the stereotype: In the U.S. it has been”scheming” Jews, “sissy” gays, “shiftless” blacks…In our trips to Europe, Spanish people have warned us against “thieving” Moroccans, a Hungarian expressed disdain for “dirty” Gypsies, and in a small town in Northern England, we were told to beware of people from Yorkshire.

Anyone with two brain cells recognizes how ridiculous it is to apply sweeping generalities–positive or negative– to any group of people. That said, it is clear that even nice people have implicit preferences for those with whom they identify. That undeniable human tendency raises two questions: why? and how do we overcome a deep-seated trait that–whatever its original utility– is increasingly counterproductive?

A recent article in The Conversation looked at the science of stereotyping.

As in all animals, human brains balance two primordial systems. One includes a brain region called the amygdala that can generate fear and distrust of things that pose a danger – think predators or or being lost somewhere unknown. The other, a group of connected structures called the mesolimbic system, can give rise to pleasure and feelings of reward in response to things that make it more likely we’ll flourish and survive – think not only food, but also social pleasure, like trust.

But how do these systems interact to influence how we form our concepts of community?

Implicit association tests can uncover the strength of unconscious associations. Scientists have shown that many people harbor an implicit preference for their in-group – those like themselves – even when they show no outward or obvious signs of bias. For example, in studies whites perceive blacks as more violent and more apt to do harm, solely because they are black, and this unconscious bias is evident even toward black boys as young as five years old.

Brain imaging studies have found increased signaling in the amygdala when people make millisecond judgments of “trustworthiness” of faces. That’s too short a time to reflect conscious processes and likely reveal implicit fears.

These studies, and many others like them, can help us understand distrust and fear of the “other.” They also explain the innate preference for people with whom we identify:

As opposed to fear, distrust and anxiety, circuits of neurons in brain regions called the mesolimbic system are critical mediators of our sense of “reward.” These neurons control the release of the transmitter dopamine, which is associated with an enhanced sense of pleasure. The addictive nature of some drugs, as well as pathological gaming and gambling, are correlated with increased dopamine in mesolimbic circuits.

The good news is that biology is not destiny.

Even if evolution has tilted the balance toward our brains rewarding “like” and distrusting “difference,” this need not be destiny. Activity in our brains is malleable, allowing higher-order circuits in the cortex to modify the more primitive fear and reward systems to produce different behavioral outcomes.

Research has confirmed that when diverse people work together–in business, or on a common problem–they are more innovative and productive than more homogeneous  groups. When people of different backgrounds socialize, they stretch their frames of reference and reduce their instinctive suspicions.

Of all the damage done by Trump voters, perhaps the very worst has been their willingness to reward political candidates–including legislators–who appeal to crude stereotypes and enthusiastically encourage fear of “the other.”

Humans can learn. To be human is to have a choice. We can tame our destructive instinctive responses. But in order to do that–in order to be more humane and less primordial–we need leaders who model our preferred behaviors and call on us to be the best version of ourselves.

Those are the people who deserve our votes in November.

Sing, Dammit..

Later this morning, I will give a brief talk at a brunch for the Indianapolis Women’s Chorus.

What’s that old saying about music having charm to soothe the savage beast? (Actually, the original–correct–version is “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” but I sort of prefer the bastardized version, since I’ve been in a pretty savage and beastly mood lately.) At any rate, the Women’s Chorus makes beautiful music, and I’m looking forward to the performance portion of the program.

Here are the brief remarks I plan to share.

_______________

I am honored to be here today, not just because the Women’s Chorus makes beautiful music, but because your mission, and your celebration of diversity, has never been more important.

Like many of you, I have been depressed and frightened since last November’s election. That election rewarded a campaign based almost entirely on appeals to American resentments–on appeals to ignorance, racism, misogyny and homophobia–and it left me wondering what had happened to the country I thought I lived in.

In the wake of that election, though, I’ve been energized and amazed to see unprecedented levels of civic engagement, from the Women’s March to the marches in support of science and the environment, to the turnouts at Congressional Town Halls across the country, to new activist groups springing up every day. Here in Indiana, Women4Change was organized last November, after the election; today it has close to 14,000 members.

We are not alone. And we can learn a number of lessons from what has come to be called “the Resistance.”  Let me just share three of them:

  • Lesson number one: We the People are not helpless. When so many Americans rise up and demand better policies and better government—when we let our elected officials know that we won’t continue to allow them to enact policies that take from the poor and give to the rich, that we won’t continue to turn a blind eye to corruption and cronyism, that we will refuse to let racist, sexist and homophobic tactics divide us—we can prevail.
  • Lesson number two is particularly gratifying to old feminists like me: women can and will empower other women. Women can and will stand up for our right to self-determination, our right to equal pay for equal work, our right to control our own reproduction, and our right to live our lives on our own terms. We can and will encourage more feminists—female and male– to run for public office, and we can and will support them when they do.
  • Lesson number three is one that members of the Indy Women’s Chorus know well: the performing and visual arts are inherently and powerfully political. Not partisan, but political and progressive. More hearts and minds have been changed through story and song than through blog posts and editorials—and I say that as someone who has a blog and writes editorials. The arts—music, dance, theater, painting—are what separate humans from animals; communication through the arts touches and teaches us in profound and moving ways.

I applaud what you do, and I am so grateful to be a part of today’s event. Thank you for asking me!