What’s in a Label?

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In the diversity landscape, it’s not about whether gender or race makes a bigger difference. It’s about how they fit into the big picture.

Sometimes I wonder which has held greater influence in my life: being a woman or being African-American. I’ll probably never know; maybe it doesn’t matter. But I do know, having worked in several male-dominated industries and exclusive companies, that my gender and my race have had a bearing on my career progression.

Years ago, I was standing with some colleagues – one of whom happened to be a Hispanic man, the other a Filipino woman – after a meeting. A colleague passing by asked if our gathering was a “conspiracy,” given that we were all “people of color.” It was an incredibly ignorant and insensitive comment that signaled the person’s discomfort with difference; he was an equal opportunity jerk.

In another instance, a prospective client told our pitch team we had an advantage because we recognized the value they placed on diversity by sending a team made up of two men (one Asian, one Caucasian) and two women (myself and one Caucasian). Guess I was a “two-fer” in that instance. Nevertheless, we won the business because we included “women and people of color.”

“Women and people of color” is the phrase commonly used to describe the primary groups many employers seek to diversify their workforce, at least in the U.S. Not to give other underrepresented groups short shrift, but GLBT, people with disabilities, those of varying religious or cultural backgrounds, and others are harder to identify on first glance, and therefore harder to recruit for expressly.

I feel compelled to reflect on the historical advancement of women and other underrepresented groups in this country, if only for insight into how we might reach parity faster. It has been 100 years since the suffrage movement ushered in women’s right to vote; it has been over 50 years since the Civil Rights movement called attention to discriminatory practices in a post-slavery society. Affirmative Action followed, only to be replaced by “Diversity” and then “Diversity & Inclusion” efforts.

The underlying fact is that diversity leads to better solutions and performance. In 2004, Catalyst found that “Companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experienced better financial performance than companies with the lowest women’s representation.”

An April 2012 article in McKinsey Quarterly, Is There A Payoff From Top-Team Diversity? noted that between 2008 and 2010, companies with more diverse top teams were also top financial performers. Diversity, for their purposes, was defined as women and foreign nationals on senior teams (the latter being a proxy for cultural diversity). In a more recent McKinsey study, “Unlocking the Full Potential of Women at Work 2012 Special Report,” produced exclusively for The Wall Street Journal Executive Task Force For Women In The Economy, we’re reminded that “what’s measured is what maters, and over time new standards can affect practice and culture.” It concludes, “Helping talented women develop and advance promises significant economic benefit to companies.”

Surely, women can benefit from critical mass in organizations. In my experience, many of the first employee affinity or resource groups are assembled by and for women. Certainly, with or without structured diversity efforts, women tend to coalesce around common experiences. Other groups sometimes struggle to find commonality of purpose based on such characteristics as race or sexual orientation and fail to meet members’ professional needs.

We’ve all been lumped together, for better or for worse. “Mapping people into identify groups often over-lumps,” notes Scott Page, the Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science and Economics at University of Michigan. “(It) ignores combinations of identities.”

Whether race or gender makes the bigger difference really doesn’t matter. What matters is that racial diversity, gender diversity and other types of diversity enrich and improve organizations’ decision making and performance. My unique perspectives gained through my life experiences as a woman and a person of color bring value to my work and the organizations with which I engage. I choose to celebrate my contributions and those of countless women and diverse people all over the world.

Ashton Ray Hansen Photograph

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About Ginny Clarke

Ginny Clarke is a partner at Toronto-based Amrop Knightsbridge, located in Chicago. Prior to this role Ginny served as president/CEO of Talent Optimization Partners, LLC, a talent and career management consulting firm serving corporate clients. She's also the author of Career Mapping: Charting Your Course in the New World of Work, and