When Convene has written about gender and racial inequity among speakers at events before, one of the common refrains we’ve come across is that it’s not easy to find qualified speakers who are diverse in gender, race, and culture. Convene Deputy Editor Barbara Palmer found one resource— Gage — that combats that argument in the STEMM sector by offering the world’s largest directory of women and gender minorities in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine for event organizers to consider for subject matter expert speakers.
The “hard to find” claim is also prevalent in the workforce when it comes to the challenge of hiring diverse employees. Autumn McDonald flattens that argument in a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “The Racism of the ‘Hard to Find’ Qualified Black Candidate Trope.” McDonald is a New America senior fellow and head of New America CA, which “promotes efforts that are locally grown and grounded in economic equity, in which technology, innovation and compelling storytelling yield transformative solutions for our most marginalized community members,” according to the New America website.
In the article, McDonald cites a USA Today report showing that Black and Hispanic computer scientists and computer engineers graduate from top universities at twice the rate that leading technology companies hire them.
McDonald writes: “When business leaders ask if diversity should be more important than ‘merit,’ this query betrays the false impression that these goals are mutually exclusive.”
DEI consultant Tamara Osivwemu told McDonald that she has heard that refrain from many clients, “even those with the best of intentions — the ones really trying to do the work — who say, ‘We want to get diverse candidates, we want to do our part, but we absolutely can’t let our quality of work, or expectations suffer.’”
According to McDonald, there are four foundational fallacies upon which this notion rests.
- Objectivity — hiring is a subjective practice, McDonald asserts. “Assigning a ‘most qualified’ label is based on measures that are difficult to quantify and are nested in opinion.”
- Meritocracy — it’s not uncommon for people to hire people who are like them. “Subjective criteria associated with likeability still figure strongly in the hiring process,” McDonald writes, “usually couched in the organizational language of ‘culture fit.’”
- Equal Goal Posts — a commonly held belief among Black professionals — and one shared by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she spoke to the PCMA Convening Leaders 2020 audience in San Francisco — is that “they have to be twice as good as their white peers to simply be considered on par with them,” McDonald writes, saying that “racial biases have skewed the perception of ‘qualified,’ moving the goalposts for both Black candidates and employees.”
- Bad Apples — because hiring and promotions are often handled at the individual level, it can “lead to the misconception that problematic behaviors are one-off occurrences,” she writes, making it difficult “to see the systemic nature of this sort of workplace racism.”
Organizations seeking to make a transformation, McDonald says, can benefit from introspection by asking these “hard questions”:
- How is your organization combating the meritocracy myth at a structural level?
- How can you replace valuing sameness with valuing those who can add to existing organizational culture?
- Are you willing to prioritize diversity targets in the same way as you prioritize sales goals? What is the level of accountability?
That last set of questions is something PCMA EduCon Main Stage speaker Janet Stovall talks about in her presentations to groups. As Stovall told Convene, if DEI is important to your organization, you need to set goals and measure outcomes. “Make 20 percent of compensation depend on those goals,” Stovall said. “Eliminate people who refuse to comply. For DEI to stick, you need definition, determination, and data.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.