The Right Way to Measure Executive Diversity

Harvard Business Review

Having spent the last five years of my career working hand in hand with many of the world’s most well-known companies on efforts to advance women and diverse professionals into leadership roles, I read with interest the recent study and blog post by my esteemed colleague Avivah Wittenberg-Cox. Avivah has undertaken an ambitious scorecard to measure the progress of women into corporate leadership around the world. Unfortunately, her approach, which has become typical of approaches to measuring progress on diversity, misses meaningful and important dimensions of the path to progress. As important as it is to track progress in terms of numbers, it’s equally important to recognize other measurable, but subtler, ways diversity is making an impact on a company and its business. We should be looking at culture, climate, and especially commitment to diversity and inclusiveness of leadership, regardless of who sits at the table.

In a majority of the world’s companies, the idea that diversity is important, especially at senior levels, has become widely accepted. Nearly every major company has taken on efforts to attract, retain, and advance women and diverse employees. Along with these efforts, a huge and growing array of award granters, raters, and scorecard vendors has emerged to help companies benchmark, track progress, and measure success. From Working Mother to DiversityInc to the Catalyst Awards, many organizations are trying to spur action by calling out those who’ve done it best.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox likely hopes her scorecard (PDF) will also spur companies to faster action by highlighting their failure to get sufficient numbers of women into key roles. In her recent study, she examined the representation of women in leadership at 300 of the world’s biggest companies across the U.S., Europe, and Asia. She then classified companies on a scale of “asleep” to “balanced.” In these ratings, companies including Siemens, Google, Costco, Deutsche Bank, and ArcelorMittal were classified as “asleep” because they have exclusively male executive teams.

The problem with this classification, and some others like it, is that simple numbers can’t capture the context or content of company diversity efforts. In fact, many of the companies that are rated “asleep” have serious leadership commitments to diversity and have poured vast resources into supporting the advancement of women and diverse professionals over the years. Siemens, for instance, does not currently have any women on the managing board. However, until very recently, there were two. In Germany, Siemens faced intense scrutiny about this. The change reflects not a lack of commitment to diversity by Siemens, but a substantial effort by their new CEO to restructure the company and prepare it for the future. In the process, some extraordinary women, including Janina Kugel, have been promoted to highly visible roles internally, and it’s likely a matter of time before women are again on the Board.

Google and Deutsche Bank also have a massive, global focus on diversity with enormous commitment at all levels of the organization. Branding any of these companies as “asleep” discounts the valuable work in progress and the real investment these companies are making every day. I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t prove their commitment by ensuring executive-level diversity, but there are a thousand complex factors that play out in senior leadership diversity, which can’t be fully captured or understood with representation numbers alone.

A large and growing body of evidence, including a recent study on the subject authored by Bersin by Deloitte, shows that beyond just the numbers of diverse individuals in key roles, the behavior and attitudes of all leaders, white men included, matter as much as the numbers of diverse individuals in leadership. This idea — now often referred to as “inclusiveness” — is essential not just to reaping the full rewards of diversity, but to creating a meaningful role for everyone in the diversity journey. No matter who you are, leading inclusively reaps rewards in terms of employee engagement, retention, and even marketplace success. Inclusive leaders build better businesses and market impact because they leverage all the perspectives and people around them — inevitably benefiting those employees and the company bottom line. It’s so important that MBA programs, including the Columbia Business School with the guidance of Dr. Katherine Philips, are incorporating it into the curriculum.

More holistic and meaningful diversity scorecards should consider inclusiveness as well as representation; they are both equally important. By showing not just who’s in a particular job but what kind of commitment a company has to fully embracing their people, we recognize and encourage a fairer, more comprehensive view of diversity progress. We should be asking whether employees across gender, generation, culture, sexual orientation, and seniority feel that top leadership in their company is seriously committed to progress on diversity. Do they feel they are valued by the company and by the people they report to? Do they believe they are fully contributing their unique perspectives and skills, and that their differences are respected and embraced? Can they advance equally as majority colleagues? And are their ideas are heard and recognized?

We are all impatient for greater progress on diversity. Numbers and measures matter enormously. But we should be looking at more complete measures that truly capture the full scope of the issue. Where progress is being made, even if slower than we’d like to see, we should applaud it. These are hard and complex challenges, and every piece of progress has to be appreciated for the context, complexity, and value it has. The path and the measurements of the progress on diversity will never be as simple as just the number of women at the executive table.

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