Just like racial and gender discrimination in our society, the problem with corporate diversity is structural. The challenges of treating all citizens or all employees with equal respect and dignity, of incorporating them efficiently into decision-making, and of seeing their voices equally heard are in both cases inhibited by millennia of social infrastructure.
The deck is stacked against the marginalized. We can expect everyone to be equally likely to win a game only if it has fair rules, applied equally to all players. Both social inclusion and corporate inclusion require a structural solution that resets the game to be fair. But this is much easier said than done. Fortunately, for corporations, there is a way to accomplish such structural change incrementally and profitably, without significant corporate restructuring.
A structural opportunity for diversity
Hiring diverse managers, executives, and board members seeds the change in corporate operations top-down, but with great friction. Drastically changing the daily practices of a company that has operated in the same way for years or even decades is comparable to speeding up a glacier in subzero temperatures. A bottom-up approach can be faster, frictionless, and profitable.
I run a law firm part-time, and I’ve found a curious reality in doing so: the treatment I receive as a consultant attorney (a vendor, not an employee) is fundamentally more respectful, especially when it comes to the value of my time than the treatment I receive as an employee – even an executive General Counsel and Chief Privacy Officer. Even for the same individual in the same executive role, simply being my boss as opposed to my client has repeatedly resulted in differing levels of respect. As a consultant, no one asked me to sort the mail – my hours were too expensive for that. As an employee, mail was routinely dumped on my desk for sorting.
The simple structural tweak of plugging the diverse individual in outside the corporate hierarchy as a consultant can resolve many of the points of friction that might apply – to both the employer’s operations and the individual’s experience.
Appending diversity to a corporation
The structure of American corporations is a legacy from a time when workers, and especially managers, were predominately white males with a partner at home taking care of the household and children. Work hours extend before and after the time when kids must be picked up and dropped off from school. Household and family needs were excluded from corporate consideration, assumed to be handled indirectly by the male worker’s salary.
With an office full of men, a corporate hierarchy came to look a lot like a military – one man at the top of a pyramid, layers of command and management in between, with directives passing exclusively top-down. This was true for centuries of industry. Any practice in place for centuries will be difficult to change, and change will take a long time.
Yet the value of diversity comes from listening to diverse people and acting on their ideas. That cannot happen easily if diverse people come in at the bottom, or even at the middle, of the corporate pyramid, because a corporation has generally not implemented the structures necessary to see those voices heard or acted upon. And this is before we even address the reality that someone has to do the household and childcare work that has been systematically undervalued by corporations and society alike – on top of other employment objectives.
When we built AnnieCannons, we knew that a workforce of human trafficking-survivors-turned software developers, predominantly women of color, was not best served by taking jobs in the existing corporate hierarchy of technology companies. Few had college degrees, but many had arrest records arising from their exploitation. The structure of a traditional corporation would oppress them more than even most women – even with the best software programming skills in the world.
Fortunately, we have established a diversity-by-appendage model that sees those same corporations benefit from the value of their diverse ideas and perspectives as well as their technical skills – but it’s not by hiring them. It by hiring us, AnnieCannons, as a consultant.
How to get the value of diversity by appendage
We ignored the standards for corporate infrastructure as we built AnnieCannons, focusing instead on what the most marginalized individuals in our world need to thrive as software developers. We did on a group scale what an individual consultant of color does for herself – organize a business based on what workers need now, as opposed to what they needed in 1950.
We spend money on childcare and we consider their children’s needs equal to job requirements for our workers. We run meetings to actively elicit the feedback of our workers before making big decisions. We institutionalize their knowledge and provide them the ability to structure their own day. And we remove any obligation to dress, speak, or interact “appropriately” for the old corporate model by focusing evaluation solely on their work product quality. All of these are things a corporation of 100 or more employees will find nearly impossible to do, even in ten years – there are simply too many minds socialized in the old corporate model to change at once.
Yet, when our clients hire us, whether to build a simple website or a complex progressive web application, they attain the value of the diverse perspectives we’ve gathered. That is the quality of real diversity that spans gender, race, socioeconomic class, educational background, national origin, and family composition.
The diversity appendage and corporation thus have parallel business models, where each type of enterprise profits from diversity. As old-world corporations see profits and benefits from diversity appendages, friction from accommodating more diversity internally decreases drastically. Anti-diversity structures within corporations are revealed.
Meanwhile, female and minority workers immediate enjoy a work environment that suits them from the outset. With an A/B comparison of what parent workers can accomplish with childcare and the recruiting value of such childcare, for example, it becomes easier to convince a board that the significant expense of childcare is warranted. Eventually, a new population of evolved technology companies can emerge to serve both workers and customers of all races and genders equally well.
On a final note
Before you add millions to a recruiting budget to push to hire women and people of color into a company that isn’t yet set up for their success, consider consultants. They can be an excellent tool to immediately infuse the value of diversity into your products and services. They will immediately elevate and economically empower diverse candidates, and likely lessen friction if a consultant does end up an employee. Moreover, their experience will help executives map and evaluate the path to making the structural changes necessary to truly diversify their employee base.
As a result, our world becomes a better, more inclusive, more collaborative place with better technology.
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