Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s alone.
Diversity means different things to different people.
For some folks, hearing the word diversity automatically equates to affirmative action and minorities taking jobs away from qualified white men. For others, it simply implies race or ethnicity. Then there’s those who believe it is about age. If you tune your ears to the right frequency and pay close attention you will notice that the diversity conversation is now largely about women — and in practice, white women.
Gender diversity seems to be the only part of the diversity movement that has seen significant gains. Companies across multiple industries are making progress by hiring more women and promoting them to higher roles or positions where there is underrepresentation. This isn’t a bad thing, but it tends to leave out a big piece of the diversity issue: race. The overwhelming majority of these women are white.
According to a recent study by the American Association for University Women (AAUW), while women make up 29 percent of executives in the U.S. private sector, all women of color — black, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, Hawaiian and women of two or more races — combined make up less than 5 percent of executives. This is despite the fact that 38 percent of women in the U.S. are minorities.
Locally, we find the AAUW’s findings to be accurate if we take a look at any list of top women executives including the Business Journals Women Who Mean Business 2016 class. If we look at top tech start-up companies in Kansas City, we also see the same trend. While I don’t have stat’s or case studies for our local scene to support this, I encourage you to Google search the executive leadership teams of any of our corporate hometown heroes leadership team’s and that should paint an even clearer picture.
Why is there progress for only one race of women?
Historically, whenever there has been a women’s equality movement or anti-discriminatory initiative, white women have always been the greatest beneficiaries. One of the foremothers of American women’s suffrage movement was Elizabeth C. Stanton, who fought hard for all women to be viewed as equals in this country. However, there is documented evidence that she didn’t really mean all women. In the fight for gender equality, women of color have often been ignored.
Fast forward to the present. Blatant racism is largely no longer politically correct, but white women are still the primary focus when it comes to gender diversity. Their new champions are male chief executives with daughters. As you might expect, seeing the limited prospects their daughters could reach for — due only to their gender — opened the executive’s eyes. Again, this is great progress, but their daughters, like them, are mostly white. It takes an extra step to expand their support to other races, and it’s a step that largely hasn’t happened yet.
And the evidence doesn’t end there.
Look at any of Silicon Valley’s diversity reports and you will see the rise of women in senior roles and throughout the company, but ethnicity and race growth has remained stagnant. It is great that companies like Intel and Slack are seeing percentage growth of women employees at around 40 percent, but when only white women reap the benefits, is that truly progress? For example, when Slack hired 74 new people, 62 of them were women and only three were black.
On a personal level, I have attended three leading “women in tech” conferences, and rarely, if ever, have I seen a woman of color headlining or involved in panel discussions. I’ve seen more white men speaking out about change at these conferences than women of color. The same is true for most conferences within insular industries. In every women diversity forum I’ve been to, there was no variety of women, just white women discussing diversity — and no one ever mentions racial or ethnic disparities.
Change must start with unity within the diversity movement.
I am torn because while I recognize the importance of more women in tech and other industries, I can’t help but notice how little progress is being made with people of color. Imagine being both a woman and person of color. In so many ways you are destined to fall through the cracks.
If we are looking to improve diversity, the solution is to stop separating diversity initiatives into categories. To ultimately realize true inclusion, we have to find the intersection between all types of diversity.
By separating everything out, yes, diversity is technically getting better — but only for one group, white women. People of color, both men and women, are still waiting in line for their piece of the equality pie. It is past time to address how the history of race relations in this country plays into all of our implicit biases. I am not anti-women or anti-white women. What I am is challenging you to look at diversity deeper than what current trends may show.
Louis Byrd is the founder of Mellie Blue Branding, a cross-cultural branding agency that helps companies elevate their brands through strategy, creativity and the fundamental idea of being more human. Follow Byrd on Twitter @.