Gap Analysis

Why diversity programs work better for women than for minorities.

Fung was raised to value “the idea of placing others’ needs above yours, operating in harmony, and deferring to authority figures,” he says, “but as a senior finance executive, you can’t work in a deferential mode.” Even subtle differences in body language can have a huge impact, he says. Traditional Asian culture, for example, holds that making direct eye contact is rude, while in American business culture, avoiding a direct gaze generally connotes deception. “You don’t need to lose your values, but you need to adapt to what’s considered successful in [your] company or industry,” says Fung.

A generation ago, women faced similar issues as they struggled to rise from the secretarial pool, but they had two important advantages. First, their presence throughout the educational pipeline helped build a better rapport between men and women from their undergraduate years through business school and into the halls of Corporate America. This is part of a broader “comfort factor” that, as Boeing CFO Bell notes, may make it “easier for white women to speak with white men,” and thus inaugurate a mentoring relationship.

That comfort factor may be further enhanced by the fact that, if women require any special accommodations in the workplace, companies find them relatively easy to meet. As CFO’s past research has found (see “What Women Want,” June 2006), one of the critical differences between men and women executives is the value that women place on flexible schedules, in part because they tend to disproportionately bear child-rearing responsibilities. Indeed, Cathie Lesjak, recently appointed CFO of Hewlett-Packard, says the company’s longstanding flextime policy was a key reason she stayed with the $92 billion tech giant after successive reorganizations led her to consider a switch. After interviewing at other companies, she says, “the decision to stay was driven, frankly, by the fact that I wasn’t convinced the other places would give me as much flexibility” to meet the demands of parenthood.

Female finance-job candidates are still far more likely to ask about day care and flextime than males, even when the men are otherwise “very involved” dads, says Lorraine Hack, an executive recruiter with Heidrick and Struggles. That means “there are some obvious things, like breastfeeding rooms and on-site day-care centers” that companies can offer women. For minorities, though, “it’s not obvious what to do, and anything you try to do might be perceived as politically incorrect.”

Differences with Distinction

Publicly, most companies will say they’re fully committed to promoting diversity. Many have hired chief diversity officers and implemented rigorous training programs to back up those claims. But few measure the effectiveness of their efforts in any meaningful way, and recent research shows that they may do more harm than good.

In studying Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data for 830 companies, Harvard sociology professor Frank Dobbin (along with Alexandra Kalev of the University of California–Berkeley and Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota) has found that diversity training programs are only modestly successful at bringing white women into management. For people of color, the effects are often negative, likely because they frame diversity in terms of legal compliance, which can be patronizing. Hiring a chief diversity officer isn’t a cure-all either, says Dobbin, “because that can sideline the issues, pushing all the responsibility to one person.”

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