Moving Toward Equity

20 May, 2021


Moving Toward Equity

May 2021

The killing of George Floyd a year ago was a wake-up call for millions of Americans. Unable to look away from the racism and discrimination that are so much a part of this country’s history, individuals and the companies they work for are giving more serious attention than ever to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) — and realizing how much work there is to do. Alert to such profound cultural shifts, the public affairs profession is responding.

“The emphasis of all these efforts must result in equitable and inclusive business practices, to complement the talent representation side,” says Roi Ewell, principal of Ewell & Associates. “Equity as I see it speaks to access and legitimacy, and is the net result of effective DEI policies, programs and engagement efforts. The Council has an important role to play as a resource for member companies and for the profession by leveraging its expertise in professional development and as a convener of leading voices to address social change.”

Ewell, who is chair of the Council’s DEI Steering Committee, launched in December, understands that this work is complex and challenging. “We have a keen focus on setting new standards of excellence in inclusion and equity by situating the Council within the broader ecosystem of supporting diverse communities and owning our industry impacts,” he says. “We’re not going to try to replicate what member companies are doing, but we do want to offer pathways of professional development, to build out the pipeline that will foster inclusiveness for our profession at all levels and disciplines.”

‘Education and Expertise’

Playing to its strength in professional development, the Council’s DEI initiative aims to provide member companies, associations, and other nonprofits “with executive education and expertise,” in Ewell’s words, as they seek to make their leadership more diverse and inclusive.

This effort, of course, begins at home. In the initiative’s strategic road map, the Council establishes as key objectives engaging more senior-level people of color with the Council and reducing racial inequities in the public affairs profession. The objectives also include seeking to expand the Foundation for Public Affairs’ efforts to grow the talent pipeline through existing programs, such as its partnership with College to Congress, as well as new ones.

Such efforts need to recognize that not everyone has the financial resources to take unpaid internship positions, says Stephanie Childs, executive vice president of corporate relations, North America, at Diageo, the international beverage company. “We’ll need to offer opportunities for ‘virtual’ internships and think creatively about providing financial assistance and other resources to allow more people to get entry-level exposure to the profession,” she says.

As part of its larger effort, the Council in April published its 2021 DEI Trends in Public Affairs Report, with useful, if concerning, results. The survey of public affairs executives — with 61% at the vice president or higher level in their organization and 51% with 20 or more years in the profession — found that just 17% of public affairs departments on average are racially/ethnically diverse, far below the racial diversity of the U.S., which is about 40%, according to census data. On the positive side, however, 65% of the organizations that responded have a formal, organization-wide DEI plan and 59% have DEI goals built into their strategic plan. However, only 35% have some sort of a process in place to support the advancement of people of color to leadership positions — and only 20% have a formal process.

“These are not great numbers and they show we have a long way to go,” says Council President Doug Pinkham. “But the will to change is there. If we’re going to advise CEOs on how a company’s actions will affect society, and how various interests can be balanced, we need to understand how the general public thinks – and that means we have to look like the public.”

Existing Resources

While the Council develops its own offerings for the public affairs field, resources to help employers in these efforts are becoming available. Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), for example, offers a Black Equity at Work Certification that incentivizes employers “to approach Black equity as they do other core business priorities,” in MLT’s words. Companies that have signed onto the program include BlackRock, Cargill, Deloitte and Nike. Another useful resource is Just Capital’s Corporate Racial Equity Tracker, which helps companies move beyond lofty and well-intentioned aspiration to “take meaningful steps to advance racial equity.”

For Julian Ha, a partner at the international executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, improving the executive pipeline with more diverse candidates is imperative.

As an Asian American, “I was called a lot of names and endured my share of harassment,” says Ha, who is the co-lead of Heidrick & Struggles’ Professionals of Color Employee Resource Group. “So I am committed to the cause of creating a diverse workforce with diverse leadership at our firm and with our clients. While this is an effort that is only beginning, I am seeing many signs of hope. For example, as leadership consultants, over the past decade, we’ve worked to elevate the conversations about diversity.”

But today, Ha says “the clients are often mentioning diversity at the earliest meeting and asking to see a diverse slate of candidates. Because the public affairs roles are often the face and voice of their organization, clients understand the significance of representation. But if they want somebody with 15-plus years of experience in a given industry, we have to do a better job of building the pipeline, by attracting people into the public affairs profession from a much earlier age — from college on.”

Lisa A. Ryan, senior vice president of Heyman Associates in New York, agrees. “The best companies these days are actively looking for more diverse leadership,” Ryan says. “They now understand in ways they didn’t before that diversity is essential to their success. They don’t want diversity for its own sake. They want diversity of thought, and you can’t achieve that without a diverse leadership. But it will take time to develop a pipeline, which means getting younger people interested in careers in our field. We need to educate them in what the public affairs profession is, and how they can make a meaningful impact in this profession.”

The Business Case for Diversity

Unfortunately, most of us “still live in our comfort zones,” says Childs, who was Kimberly-Clark’s vice president of global government relations before joining Diageo. “There is still pervasive social segregation in American society, which is reflected in our workplaces. The good news is that successful companies are coming to understand the business case for diversity.”

Childs says top-performing companies are seeking the best solutions to complex problems. They have to manage ever-growing risk and find ways to limit exposure, which means they need to be able to recognize their blind spots. “Bringing in a more diverse leadership is a part of smart and rigorous decision-making,” she says. “You can’t get to the best solutions if all your leadership comes from a similar background and looks and thinks alike.”

That means hiring a few people of color and making them part of the leadership won’t be enough. “It’s an encouraging sign that organizations know there is a strong business case for diversity, and they want to recruit and promote POC,” says Ellie A. Shaw, director of federal government affairs for American Express. “But awareness and recognition of the challenge must transition into action. And hiring alone won’t be sufficient. Building an inclusive environment/workplace to retain the people you hire and promote is also crucial.”

Positioned to Succeed

Candidates don’t want to be hired simply because of their ethnicity, Ryan says. “They don’t want to be seen as ‘token’ hires, and they want to work for organizations where they can succeed,” she says. “If they are considering accepting a position with a company, then  they may look around and think, ‘There’s nobody here who looks like me, so how am I going to succeed? Where’s my support system? Who is going to tell me where the landmines are?’”

Belén Mendoza, vice president of campaigns at AARP, agrees that people of color don’t want to be brought into an organization because of their ethnicity, only to find themselves limited in their responsibilities. “When I was coming up, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as the DEI person within the organization, no matter what that function might have been called at that time — ‘community outreach’ or director of Latino or African American outreach,” she says.

Mendoza says she was “reluctant to accept a ‘multicultural job,’ and I deliberately avoided them. It is worth noting that we want to do multicultural work and service our community, but we also want the same opportunities to make it to the C-suite. If you are limited to DEI or any other work under the multicultural umbrella, your path to the C-suite is pretty hard. That is what non-people of color should understand: Society’s micro-aggressions about race make it difficult for us to embrace the work that needs to be done in our communities.”

Structure of Support

Like anybody else, people of color want to be positioned for success within their organizations, which will require that there be structures of support for them. Childs says she has been successful because she “was helped along the way by [my] own network of senior Black people, committed white people and by the support systems I was fortunate enough to have. Creating an inclusive environment where diverse employees can succeed requires a focused effort, and not all companies are willing to do the work. This is one reason why there can be higher turnover rates for Black employees.”

Ha agrees that retention can be as big a challenge as recruitment. “It does nobody any good to hire a qualified person but not give them the necessary support. That person is going to realize they can’t succeed, and they will leave in two years. And if you have that situation repeated, it is awfully hard for people to have the requisite tenure to develop the authority and expertise that goes with that experience, and which equips them for senior leadership responsibilities.”

Committed to the Journey

“Matters associated with DEI continue to evolve, and the Council’s leadership knows that real progress will take time and serious effort,” Ewell says. “It’s clear to me that the collective leadership is committed to generating wide-reaching, high-impact DEI initiatives by leveraging resources at scale to end the systems that keep inequities in place and effect lasting change for the public affairs profession.”

Meanwhile, everyone — in their own organizations but also as individuals — must do their part to build a more equitable workforce and society. “I feel so strongly about this,” Shaw says, “that I spend some of my volunteer time to support and partner with organizations and nonprofits that work to increase the presence of underrepresented groups in the policy area. Five years from now, I hope the percentage of POC in the public affairs profession shows marked improvement.”

Just as Mendoza wants people of color to be recognized as being able to do the same jobs everyone at the leadership level can do — and not being seen as capable of handling only the DEI functions — she also hopes those functions are understood throughout the organization.

“I hope that different communities of color aren’t seen as separate unto themselves,” she says. “They should be seen as part of the larger community. Everyone in leadership should see them as such and be able to address them with that broader understanding in mind.”

To address these issues within any organization, “it is essential that everyone within that organization participates in the change,” Mendoza says. “The people in the boardroom should be fighting to advance people of color. This is key.”

Shaw says progress won’t happen “if we think it is someone else’s challenge to work on. We all have a role, and it must start with looking at yourself and what you can do. Lead by example and do what is in your power — at whatever career stage you’re at.”

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