If this month’s divisive presidential election did anything for the country, it’s put the issue of diversity back into the national narrative.
It’s forced educational organizations to declare their campuses as “safe spaces” for students who fear being persecuted or forced out of school because of their heritage or their legal status. It’s galvanized discussion in some of the nation’s largest companies about how they will address inclusion in their workplaces when the federal government’s new presidential cabinet may not share that same value. It prompted flash-mob-style appeals for lawmakers to show compassion and open-mindedness toward those with more inclusive values.
And it’s forced many of us to wonder just what a multicultural 21st-century America would look like without a legislative body that doesn’t respect, or enforce diversity and inclusion in society.
Driving diversity: A public-private partnership
It’s not like we haven’t been here before.
The path to assuring the civil rights of minorities and women has been marked by both troubling failures and surprising wins throughout the country’s 240-plus history. Anti-slavery and pro-suffragist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries have been replaced today with calls for better legal protections and job access for minorities, assured rights for immigrants, and equal pay and rights for women in business. Women and minorities may have won the right to vote decades ago, but gaining parity to their white male counterpart in many areas of the business world is still a work in progress.
And that may be in part because in today’s world, effecting social change takes a private-public partnership. Government legislation can set the framework for how companies govern their workplaces, but companies make the business case for improvements like a more inclusive workforce, explained MaryAnne Howland.
Howland co-directs work on inclusion for the American Sustainable Business Council. She is also the founder of Ibis Communications, and a partner of Cluster Americas at the startup Bezgraniz Couture, a fashion company that helps self-empower individuals with disabilities.
In recent years, business organizations like ASBC have become valuable to ensuring that diversity and inclusion are part of the dialogue in Washington about business vitality. The organization, which comprises businesses across every sector, has been vocal about the need for better support for minority- and women-owned businesses.
“The number-one challenge for minority businesses is access to capital,” Howland said. It’s a common refrain among minority-owned companies, which are often the brick and mortar of small ethnic communities, and are struggling themselves. The ASBC’s mission in such cases is to try to find innovative ways to increase access to capital. “In other words, taking a look at any new legislation or any new government initiatives where we see there is an angle that can be carved out for minority businesses that will give them an opportunity to compete.” That support network of businesses is often what helps to drive new dialogue about ways to streamline access to capital that in turn, can translate to more jobs and business opportunities for minorities and women.
And there are a number of ways that could be done, Howland suggested. “Government could increase the flow of capital to medium-sized businesses so they can afford to grow into large-size businesses.”
Some legislation does give preferential access to minorities, but according to Howland, it doesn’t go far enough. It also relies on businesses to constantly push and lobby for improvements. Under federal law, 5 percent of government contracts must be “set aside” for women and minority-led disadvantaged businesses. The provision is meant to make it just a little easier for struggling businesses (that meet the guidelines) to access good-paying contracts. But that 5 percent of contracts is barely a drop in the bucket when one considers that 55 percent of businesses in the sprawling Los Angeles area alone are owned and operated by minority business owners.
“They have all these people competing for this little bitty [5 percent]. Well, that doesn’t create much opportunity for a medium-sized business to grow.” She said the provision has helped some businesses, but there must be “some leveling of the playing field” if the country’s smallest businesses are truly going to feel the economic impact of government set-asides.
“Government-driven mandates like that are good. I think it is time for the government to increase it,” Howland said. And unfortunately, it’s again up to small and medium businesses to remind the government that the percentage needs to be representative of the country’s demographics.
Gender diversity at the top
But small, local businesses aren’t the only place that diversity needs to grow. Earlier this year some of the country’s largest corporations joined forces to support legislation that would help ensure more female representation on corporate boards. HR 4718, authored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (NY-D), would force companies to disclose their diversity statistics to the Security and Exchange Commission. And it would require business to actually explain their representation of women and minorities in the seats of the country’s largest and most influential businesses.
The legislation didn’t just get the support of investors who were lobbying for more transparency at the corporate top, but also from Catalyst, a NGO designed to support the advancement of women in businesses, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It also garnered bipartisan support in its first lap through the House.
With a Republican-led administration and Congress moving in next year, getting the bill passed may be harder than initially anticipated. But businesses are letting lawmakers know that diversity at the top of the corporate ladder matters just as much as sustainable, economic opportunities do for smaller companies.
Time for companies to lead
Howland said she is pragmatic, and doesn’t expect to see the support for inclusive businesses in Washington as there was under the Obama Administration. And that will likely make it much harder for businesses to push progressive business values at the federal level. But that doesn’t mean businesses – or the ASBC for that matter – should stop advocating for diversity and inclusion.
“One of the things that I strongly believe … is that corporations should be taking the lead in [advocating for diversity and inclusion],” Howland said. “It’s an enormous opportunity for them, because [irrespective of] what kind of politics are going on, the demographics are the demographics.” Businesses still need sound, sustainable policies that will allow them to grow and prosper. They just may not find as receptive an ear in Washington as they did last year.
“So you go state,” Howland said. You lobby and network where your values will be heard in state legislatures and hopefully, eventually, carried forward to Washington.
Or, as Howland said would likely be the case in her home state, Republican-led Tennessee, you go local, where Nashville’s first woman mayor, Megan Barry, was just elected. You use your network, and when possible, you innovate to bring change.
“Can we empower her and her voice with the Council of Mayors and help her make the case to the mayors in other neighboring cities, and then those that will carry forward to the legislature and the state government?” reflected Howland. “I don’t know. But we have a champion right here, who we can support [and] uplift.” And even in these uncertain times, networks are what help to build strong, inclusive neighborhoods.
“Maybe we should start with the friends we have,” she said.
Image credit: Flickr/Wonder woman0731