Breaking Through the Bias

Companies embrace diversity, but to get ahead, minorities still have to go the extra mile

I am seeking a rewarding career, having recently completed my bachelor's degree in management. What obstacles will I likely need to overcome in the corporate world being an older, five-foot-tall African American woman? —Letha Daniels, Houston

When we first received your letter, we put it into a file labeled How to Succeed in Business While Being Different. There it joined about 15 other e-mails that have come in recent months, including ones sent by a Sri Lankan immigrant joining a company in Atlanta, a 64-year-old Puerto Rican nurse promoted into management in a Toronto hospital, and a (closeted) gay man leading the sales force of a major corporation. Every e-mail in the How to Succeed folder tells a unique personal story, but the underlying question is always the same. Can you get taken seriously—and get ahead—in typical corporate settings without seeming, well, typical?

If only the answer were yes. Unfortunately, in our experience, it is only, "Yes, but it's harder."

Not to vilify corporations. There isn't a CEO today who doesn't want a diverse workforce, and there isn't a global company that hasn't devoted significant resources to achieving that end, with diversity councils, proactive hiring and promotion practices, mentoring programs, and the like. But deeply entrenched biases persist in society, and many corporations remain predisposed to straight, white men with prestigious college degrees. As one African American senior executive puts it: "Hiring managers are often uncomfortable based simply on a lack of familiarity. They want to associate with people like them."

Which doesn't knock you out of the corporate career competition, it just shifts your starting line back a bit. And the only way we know to overcome that deficit is with sheer, unbridled competence. Because at their core, more than anything else, companies want to win. So while your performance may take longer to be rewarded, if you consistently deliver great results, eventually you'll wear any doubters down. They'll come to need you too much.

Is this system fair? Of course not. Even though we have both benefited from it to some extent, due to background and education, we have seen its inequities and the toll it can take on personal dignity. We've seen it make too many people feel disenfranchised. We've seen it make too many leave. And indeed, that's a viable alternative for you. Many younger companies—think Google and eBay—seem to have solved the problem of diversity. Or you can go it alone: The economy is filled with businesses started by individuals who didn't want to wait for a bunch of middle-aged white men to decide they were worth something. You can't blame them.

But we wouldn't advise you—or anyone "different"—to ditch a traditional corporate career. Big companies are getting better every day at inclusiveness; the vast majority are making a serious effort. And corporations do offer immense opportunity for professional and personal growth. Once your career takes off, you can travel, manage teams, even launch whole new businesses. Perhaps most rewarding, you can use your platform to foster the careers of other "different" people, making the corporation and the world all the better for it.

So don't give up. If you feel you can survive the corporate journey with your sense of humor and humanity intact, know that your performance can ultimately get you to the top of the mountain. Just be prepared for a harder climb.

Recently, I was at Target and saw a giant "Made in the USA" sign on a box of toys. How can the leaders of companies that rely on China for production overcome concerns that consumers have now, stemming from recent product recalls? —Anonymous, New York City

Very simply, they can face up to the reality that outsourcing means never saying goodbye. The fact is, it doesn't matter where you do your manufacturing, Peoria or Nanchang or any of the thousands of low-cost locales in between, with more emerging every day. If your company's name is on a product, you have total responsibility for its quality, even if it means keeping any number of your own people in foreign plants to monitor materials, processes, and output.

Now, we've heard some pundits opine that the recent Chinese recalls signal a return to the value of locally made products, and the sign you saw in Target seems to suggest the same. But these are knee-jerk reactions, and in some quarters, perhaps a bit of wishful thinking. Globalization means that outsourcing will be with us forever. Companies and their managers just need to get better at it. Outsourcing may take place out of sight, but it can never be out of mind.

Return to the Table of Contents for the October 15 issue of BusinessWeek.

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