Orienting to equity means we shift from the paradox of trying to include people into workplaces designed to keep them out.
At Fearless Futures we’re often approached by organizations seeking support on recruitment strategies. In our workshops, it’s frequently the area participants articulate as a key focus for their inclusion efforts. And we agree, recruitment is a critical area of focus if we’re serious about inclusion. However, there are some very common tripping hazards which ultimately prevent meaningful change;
1. We’re too focused on numbers
Quotas are often offered as a panacea to all diversity-workplace woes. As our CEO Hanna Naima McCloskley aptly puts it in this podcast, the issue in our companies isn’t ultimately one of numbers, but rather: power asymmetries. How power is organized, and how power is maintained for some groups at the expense of others. We know for example, that women are largely overrepresented in organisations in support functions like administration, while men tend to be concentrated in operations, profit and loss, and research and development — all viewed as critical experiences for CEO and board-level positions. But if we look at the numbers alone — they may show us that there is a ‘good amount’ of women in the organization and lead to the notion so we don’t have a ‘diversity issue’. This hides how power is organized. Just because we may hire Jewish folks in leadership positions, doesn’t mean we don’t have a culture of anti-semitism. We can have a management team which is 62% women and still have a culture of sexism that feeds through policy, process and practice at the organization. Focus on filling quotas actually takes us further away from equity and inclusion for marginalised folks because it detracts from addressing micro and macro power asymmetries and how they are maintained even when our workplaces are diverse. Women can be numerical majority in the management team but still be positioned and read as irrational and therefore de-prioritised in high stakes decision making. We simply cannot begin to grapple with the dyanmics of exclusion if we’re busy congratulating ourselves for the numbers.
Our second pitfall:
2. We’re looking out, without really looking in.
Most organizations embarking on inclusive recruitment recognise that this requires us to be intentional in ‘looking out’ to attract candidates from a wider pool. But this commitment to ‘bringing people in’ is often implicitly taken (in a sort of congratulatory manner) to somehow in and of itself indicate that we’re effectively positioned to recognise the skill, talent and capabilities of minoritised folks once we’ve attracted them to the roles in question (and the organization more broadly). The problem is, unfortunately it certainly isn’t. And that’s because we’re not addressing how oppression informs our internal cultures and structures such that we need targeted, inclusive recruitment in the first place.
Let’s look at an example.
Professors at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania undertook research where they invited recruiters from large firms to rate resumes with randomly assigned characteristics (such as GPA, major, work experience, skills, extracurricular activities as well as a name that is typically read as indicative of someone’s race and gender). The recruiters in the study told the researchers that they were seeking ‘diverse candidates’ — when surveyed, 90% reported that increasing gender and racial diversity was a factor they considered positively in their hiring. Obviously, we’d sincerely hope for 100% but even 90% sounds reasonably good, right? The thing is, their resume ratings suggested otherwise.
The researchers found that, despite the expressed desire for more diverse candidates (the commitment to ‘looking out’), in practice the recruiters defaulted to selecting the same candidates from prioritized identities (a result of the failure to meaningfully look inwards). Their selections demonstrated a clear preference for candidates enrolled in prestigious schools over those in standard undergraduate programs. They also prioritized those having held a prestigious internship (think Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and Google) rather than a more standard internship. Having an additional standard internship in the summer before junior year was also preferred. The standard internships that firms valued? Typically unpaid. In contrast having a summer job before junior year — the kind of job a student might take to earn money (think barista, retail assistant, or lifeguard) — did not increase employer ratings at all. What this tells us is that despite the stated commitment to increase diversity through recruitment — the logics of oppression prevailed.
The recruiters’ candidate selection reveals some deeply classist logics at play: we have to ask ourselves, who is more likely to have been enabled to undertake multiple unpaid internships to boost their resume and work experience? Who is more likely to be selected for these internships based on class indicators like accent, speech, embodiment, that are read as desirable and preferable? Or based on disablist logics of who is ‘productive’ and who is a burden? Or cissexist logics about who is ‘normal’?
Furthermore, the data also showed that a prestigious internship on the resume of a white man boosted their ratings by over 50% more than that same internship on a resume of a woman or person of colour. This reveals that the logics of sexism and racism are at play too, intersecting with classism such that these systems compound the exclusion happening through the selection process by these firms who claimed D&I as an ambition of their recruitment process. Without looking inwards to unearth, acknowledge and disrupt these logics, looking outwards to attract candidates from marginalized communities is futile. And furthermore, even if an indigenous, disabled woman, for example, was (miraculously) selected for a role by the recruiters above — we have to ask ourselves what their experience in such organizations would be like?
The need for equity, inclusion and diversity arises from specific distributions/relationships of power and dynamics of oppression that sustain those relationships and we need to look inwards and prioritize disrupting them. Without analysing how logics of classism, racism, islamophobia, cissexism, antisemitism, etc are implicitly and explicitly upheld and maintained in our organizations, we can claim we are committed to inclusive recruitment all we want, but outcomes for marginalized communities won’t change.
Which takes us to our third common pitfall with ‘inclusive recruitment’:
3. Recruitment is treated as the be-all and end all of D&I
The third common pitfall arises from a combination of the first 2: recruitment is the function where most of our attention to diversity, equity and inclusion crystallizes, such that ‘inclusive recruitment’ is treated as the silver bullet for all things EDI/D&I. Which means we are less likely to be meaningfully considering other key areas where equity and inclusion are either furthered or reduced or where the status quo of oppression is perpetuated or disrupted. What I’m thinking about here is functions like: on-boarding and performance review processes. Processes for career progression. Decision making. Project allocation. Meeting formats. Events and away days. Furthermore — along with recruitment processes, these are all structural components of an organizational ecosystem. What about the culture of the organization, which informs policy, process and practice?
So, what can we do differently if we’re serious about meaningful equity and inclusion?
The good news is, if we shift our paradigm in relation to the first three pitfalls we are not only more likely to get recruitment right but we position ourselves to go beyond recruitment.
At Fearless Futures we encourage the daring organizations we work with to shift to a paradigm something more like this:
Equity + inclusion = anti-oppression (and also = diversity)
How is this different? Well, focusing on equity requires that we acknowledge and account for the root causes of inequity and the mechanics that perpetuate inequitable outcomes in our organizations. We have to get serious about interrogating the narratives that negatively position some communities and positively position others. And then we need to strategize for disrupting them. Strategizing for equity takes us beyond the quotas and the numbers, beyond the often tokenistic and superficial ‘diversity’ hype and, indeed, beyond the blinkered focus on recruitment. A focus on equity — across process, policy, strategy and culture — changes the meaning of inclusion. Orienting to equity means we shift from the paradox of trying to include people into workplaces designed to keep them out. We move away from assimilatory ideas that anyone can be part of our organization if they are the right “fit” (the mainstay coded terminology that predicates “inclusion” as dependent on aligning with the status quo). Instead we start to innovate, reorganize and redesign our organizational cultures and structures.
“But what does that look like, in practice?” I hear you ask. Stay tuned for part two of this series where I’ll dive into just that and consider ‘inclusion beyond recruitment’.