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Strategies for Diversity

Monday, June 16, 2008
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"American companies may tout their equal opportunity initiatives, but with 95 percent of all executive-level positions in the United States held by white males, most of these programs clearly fall far short of their goals when it comes to diversifying upper management," according to authors David A. Thomas and John J. Gabarro in Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America.

"Yet," they write, "even in the face of such overwhelming odds, some minority executives do break through to the highest leadership ranks."

This excerpt discusses three types of diversity strategies:

Chapter 7: Diversity Strategy

Three Approaches to Enabling Minority Advancement

. . .

The Role of Context

To understand the critical role of the organizational context, we first identified what the managers and executives in our study saw as significant in their organization's ability to develop a cadre of minority managers and executives. We then interviewed a broader group of individuals with important perspectives on each company's efforts to promote racial diversity. We were also aided by the written materials developed by consultants and others who have examined these corporations' diversity efforts.

Initially, we thought that the success of these companies in enabling minority advancement might lie in a few specific programs or actions on the part of corporate leaders. Instead we discovered that each company had developed its own systematic approach to changing its culture of race relations and to creating contexts that were conducive to minority achievement.

Diversity Strategies

By the late 1970s, each company had begun to move beyond a simple focus on numbers to develop a distinct approach to advancing diversity. These diversity strategies were not well articulated in the beginning, but emerged as the central promoters of these efforts began to find ways to implement their vision of equal opportunity and racial diversity, all within their organization's essential operating principles and values.

In the evolution of their strategies, each company's approach was implicitly based on a different model of diversity. Sociologists have developed two distinct models: assimilationism and pluralism. Assimilationism proposes that discriminating behavior can best be eliminated by diminishing the salience of race and ethnicity. The assimilationist approach is based on sociologists' observations of how European immigrants assimilated into North American culture. Under the assimilationist model, people shed their ethnic or racial identity over time and assimilate fully into the dominant culture. Some refer to assimilationism as a "color-blind" approach. We discovered that Acme's diversity strategy shared many characteristics of this approach.

In sharp contrast to Acme, Advanced Technology's diversity strategy embodied many of the basic tenets of pluralism, which maintains that it is unnecessary and even undesirable to abandon racial or ethnic identity in order to integrate. Pluralism is based on the premise that different identities actually enrich a society or institution. The belief is that if salient group identities are suppressed or devalued, people become resentful and alienated. The pluralist task, then, is to create a context in which both shared and unique characteristics can be recognized and valued. Contemporary examinations of the corporate responses to diversity have called this approach "valuing differences."

On initial inspection, Gant Electronics represents a hybrid approach to diversity that includes elements of both the assimilationist and pluralist approaches. However, a closer examination suggests its approach is driven by a process of intergroup negotiations. A necessary condition is that representatives of both the minorities and the corporate leaders recognize each other as legitimate parties in addressing the issues of minority advancement and development. Race is salient and recognized, but the emphasis is on changing the system so that members of racial minority groups compete with the majority group members on a level playing field. This model emphasizes systems and incentives, not attitudes, as the levers for change. We refer to it as an intergroup negotiation model.

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The strategies and implicit models of the three companies varied fundamentally along several key dimensions: premises, principal targets of change, motivating rhetoric, and core tactics, which we will examine in the sections that follow.5

. . .

Excerpt from Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America reprinted with permission.

A description of the book, which can be purchased from Harvard Business Publishing follows:

"In one of the first in-depth studies to focus on minorities who have made it to the top, Breaking Through examines the crucial connection between corporate culture and the advancement of people of color.

American companies may tout their equal opportunity initiatives, but with 95 percent of all executive-level positions in the United States held by white males, most of these programs clearly fall far short of their goals when it comes to diversifying upper management. Yet, even in the face of such overwhelming odds, some minority executives do break through to the highest leadership ranks.

What can we learn from these success stories? The often surprising conclusions drawn by authors Thomas and Gabarro represent important milestones both for the study of organizational practice and for minorities planning their own course of professional achievement.

Here are the determining factors -- both individual and organizational -- that correspond to the advancement of minority executives to the highest levels."

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