Author Talks: Don’t call it diverse

Workplace inclusion efforts can undermine inclusivity by labeling people who are not white, cisgender, or male as “diverse.” Ruchika Tulshyan urges businesses to recenter on the experiences of women of color.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Ruchika Tulshyan, an award-winning inclusion strategist and speaker, about her new book, Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging At Work (MIT Press, March 2022). Tulshyan decodes the bias behind phrases such as “culture fit” and “lean in” in a discussion about psychological safety at work. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why is this book timely now?

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We are three years into a pandemic. We don’t know when it will end. What I’m starting to find, and what’s started happening in the last few years, is much more discussion around moving away from talking about diversity and inclusion as “nice to have” to really taking action, really making change and being responsible for that change.

Why do diversity and inclusion policies need to center around, and on, the experiences of women of color?

The reason why workplace experiences need to center around the experiences of women of color is because [women of color] are on track to become the largest demographic in the female workforce in the United States. And if you look at it from a global perspective, we do make up the largest majority of women in the workplace.

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For far too long, diversity and inclusion, especially corporate diversity efforts, have centered around women—by which they mean White women—and yet where some of the largest disparities lie, where there’s huge opportunity for growth and change, is by centering around women of color.

We know about the historical oppression of women of color—because of the two marginalized identities that they carry: gender and race. We know that they experience many more challenges and obstacles to progress in the workplace, whether it be pay inequity, opportunities to success, or being thought of as leaders.

There’s a lot of work that can be done and must be done, because for far too long, especially in Western workplaces, we have focused on how White women have progressed. In fact, McKinsey has excellent data on what that disparity really looks like in the numbers. We know that less than 4 percent of women of color are in the American corporate C-suite. That number is nearly 20 percent for White women. So we know that there is a lot of work to be done.

Decoding the bias

What do you want to replace ‘leaning in’ with in the workplace?

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One of the reasons why this whole narrative around women leaning in really felt very unfamiliar to me is that earlier on in my career as a woman of color, as someone who pursued academic education, who felt very proud of my academic achievements and other work experiences, I didn’t feel like the biggest challenge to my career was a lack of confidence or leaning in.

When I would check in with other women—and especially women of color like me who had gone through rigorous academic training and other forms of pursuing really amazing work experiences—we found again and again that leaning in was not where we were falling short. It was actually [around] facing bias, facing discrimination, being thought of as less committed or less leadership material–like by our peers and especially people in leadership.

Leaning in does fall short. In fact, even later on, once this narrative became very popularized, and it continues to be popular, some of the advice that’s given to women, such as “negotiate harder” or “be more confident” or “fake it till you make it,” has actually been found to be detrimental for women’s careers.

It continues putting the onus on women to change, when actually a lot of the challenges we face are systemic and need to be addressed by the organizations. I think that leaning in as a catchphrase had its moment.

Some of the advice that’s given to women, such as ‘negotiate harder’ or ‘be more confident’ or ‘fake it till you make it,’ has actually been found to be detrimental for women’s careers. It continues putting the onus on women to change, when actually a lot of the challenges we face are systemic and need to be addressed by the organizations.

When we think about movements, such as the #MeToo movement, or when we think about movements for racial justice around the world, we know for sure that leaning in is not the answer to achieve any form of gender equality that is so sorely needed right now.

What does ‘culture fit’ really mean?

Culture fit is coded bias. I know this is hard to swallow because it’s something that feels very normalized in corporate culture and in the various countries in the world that I’ve operated in and worked in. Talking about someone—a new hire or a candidate—being a culture fit is very much part of the lexicon, and everyone understands it. In theory, what it means to be a culture fit is to find someone who is exactly like what is existing in the corporation today, in the team today.

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Unfortunately, it’s coded bias. What that means is if your team is largely made up of men, if it’s largely made up of White people, then culture fit often means, even at the most unconscious and subconscious level, “Let’s find other people who are already like the team we have. We have a winning track record on our team the way that it is, and we don’t need to diversify.”

Therefore, when people come in, especially women of color, the difference from what’s already on the team is not only in race and gender but also could be a different style of dress, a different style of speaking, different work experiences. We automatically reject them if we hire for cultural fit.

It’s much more important to hire for “culture add” and focus on “What do we lack today on the team? What measures of diversity do we lack today and would really add to our team? Let’s hire for that.” What’s also important is to name what we want to be different, that we want diversity on our team without saying, “We just want diverse people.”

I get a lot of “Can you please refer a diverse person to me.” I have to double down and double-click a little bit and say, “What do you mean? What’s a diverse person?”

When you call someone a diverse person—and what that often means is racially not White and ethnically not White, or gender diverse, not cis male—the response is just, “Oh, a diverse person is just a diverse person.”

I really encourage, especially hiring managers and leaders, to name what areas of diversity they want to focus on. If you can’t name it, you’re not going to be able to change it or measure it. Again, we need more hiring managers to move away from the culture fit equation and move toward culture add.

It is also really important to not call anyone, any candidate, or a group of people, “diverse” people. In that moment, you are centering Whiteness.

Building an inclusive workplace

Why is psychological safety vital to inclusion?

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One of the reasons why I believe corporate diversity efforts to date have either failed to reach the targets that are set or have certainly not made the type of progress they want is because they don’t address the people aspect of it.

I really want leaders and managers to sit down and to stop and think and investigate their own biases, their own areas where they have privilege. “What are the areas where we can use our influence and privilege for good?” Because that’s what really moves the needle. It’s not necessarily, “Here’s a big corporate diversity program. We’re going to check the box and keep on moving.” Part of that, as a manager and a leader, is creating psychological safety.

Building on Dr. Amy Edmondson’s groundbreaking work on psychological safety, what she found was that where psychological safety exists—especially in very tense and high-risk situations, such as in the hospital, in the neonatal intensive-care unit—it doesn’t matter who you are or what your rank is. You could be a woman of color on the team, who perhaps doesn’t have the status and privilege of the White [male] leader on the team, and still have the safety to speak up, still know that you can take a risk, that perhaps you can disrupt the plan of action that’s going to be happening.

“We’re going to be administrating this drug” or “We’re going to be going down this surgery route,” et cetera. Even if I don’t have privilege and status, I can jump in at that moment and say, “Actually, I don’t think that’s the right course of action.” I can take a risk. My idea may not be the winning one, it might be a failure, but knowing that I’m not going to lose status, that I’m not going to be humiliated, is really important. That’s what creates innovative teams.

Teams where there’s high growth, where there’s a lot of success, are teams that have high psychological safety. There have been multiple studies since Dr. Edmondson’s work on this. When we supersede it with the diversity and inclusion lens, it’s how do we create a culture where no matter what your background is—maybe I have an unfamiliar name, my name is Ruchika, it’s not something that’s very common in the American workforce—you shouldn’t feel shame or awkwardness to pose your idea or take a risk. You shouldn’t feel that you would lose status or be considered “less than.”

I think it’s really important for managers and leaders to think about, “How do we create psychological safety in our teams today? How do we create space for people to take risks?” Because we know taking risks and failing is really important in terms of creating an innovative and high-growth team and environment.

How can people learn from mistakes on inclusion?

The path to creating an inclusive culture and an inclusive society, both in and out of the workplace, is going to be bumpy and filled with failure. There is absolutely no way that we can make real change and have real growth without making some pretty big mistakes.

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The important thing to think about when it comes to inclusion is that, unfortunately, most of us have not been [given a] model of a very inclusive society when we were growing up, and then certainly [not] in the workplace.

One study found that three-quarters of White people in America don’t have a single friend of color, and 91 percent of the average White person’s social network is White. You can imagine that if you have not had interactions, any meaningful interactions, with people who are different than you, people in early experiences have very little meaningful interactions with diversity.

The same study found that the first time that most White Americans have any meaningful interactions with people who are different than them is in the workplace. You could go two decades, could be even more, without really interacting in any meaningful way with someone who’s different than you. Then you’re in the workplace, and you’re dealing with and you’re talking with and you’re connecting with and you’re collaborating with people who are very different than you. You are going to make mistakes, right? This is a muscle that we all need to build, and we need to train, and we are going to make mistakes.

One of the biggest challenges to diversity, equity, and inclusion today is that people don’t want to make mistakes. Yes, I can understand we don’t want to hurt anyone, we don’t want to be the person who destroyed someone’s career, but I would say by not engaging in those brave actions, by not taking those courageous steps forward, by not making time to understand where we could improve, we continue more of the same. Status quo is not going to get us to a more inclusive workplace or society.

By not making time to understand where we could improve, we continue more of the same. Status quo is not going to get us to a more inclusive workplace or society.

What gives you hope?

Reporting for the book was actually quite painful and traumatic. I didn’t expect that. After some of the interviews I had with women of color in the book, there were sometimes one or two days where I really needed to lie down and think, “Can this book make a difference?” Because it feels like some of the challenges we’re solving are so big and so overwhelming.

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But what gives me hope, especially in the long run, is this realization, which, year on year, more and more leaders, managers, and people with privilege in society and in the workplace are starting to build. It’s very inspiring, and it’s humbling.

I’m starting to hear more leaders I speak with say things like, “I acknowledge that I have privilege. I want to learn more about intersectionality. I’m taking the time to read literature and books and media and listen to podcasts from people that I would never have even a few years ago.”

I think that there is a social change and a social movement building from the movement for racial justice, especially spurred on by Black Lives Matter. I feel very inspired by even the #MeToo movement for all the challenges that it brought to light.

I am so inspired by the fact that now, when I go into organizations, I will have conversations with people who say, “Five years ago, I would never have brought up this issue that I’ve been facing, because I thought it was too small or I thought it’s par for the course for being a woman in the workplace or for working in a male-dominated environment. But I’m going to bring it up, and I’m going to say something.”

On the flip side, it’s also been really inspiring to hear from people with privilege saying things like, “I recognize that I made this mistake, and I’m going to step up and take ownership to make change.” I think that personal accountability, personal responsibility, the fact that we’re recognizing, more than ever, that inclusion is a leadership trait gives me a lot of hope.

When I was becoming an advocate for a more diverse and inclusive workplace, in the beginning, I was asked to come in to address organizations. I was often told, “Can you just talk about diversity, but don’t mention race?” Then I’d say, “But what do you mean by ‘talk about diversity,’ then?” And they’d say, “You know, just women, like, lean in. Topics like, you know, imposter syndrome.” They really just wanted surface-level “diversity,” which centered around a high socioeconomic group of White women, essentially.

What gives me hope now is that in the last few years, nobody has asked me or approached me to talk about diversity and inclusion and said, “Please don’t talk about race.” In fact, more often than not, I’m now getting asked to go into some of those challenging and vulnerable places.

I’m starting to hear a lot more employees at different levels really speak up about challenges they’ve faced. I think that rising tide is what’s going to lift all the boats. At least, that’s what gives me optimism.

I’m starting to hear a lot more employees at different levels really speak up about challenges they’ve faced. I think that rising tide is what’s going to lift all the boats. At least, that’s what gives me optimism.

What would success look like to you?

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There’s a personal success and then there’s a societal success. Personal success would be that I’m not talking about this issue anymore and I render this part of what I do as absolutely obsolete, that if I come in and say that women of color are lacking in leadership, people look at me and they laugh: “What do you mean by that? I can’t even imagine that you’re talking about a time when women of color didn’t have equal opportunities and rights as everyone else.” Honestly, it’s to render myself obsolete in what I’m talking about right now.

From a larger and societal standpoint, it’s not only numbers—but, of course, data and metrics count for a lot. Back to this concept of psychological safety, it’s this idea that when women of color walk into their workplace, they’re seen as leaders, they’re seen as innovators and trailblazers, they’re recognized for bringing their authentic selves to work. They feel like they can fail and take those risks and be the ones who raise their hands with those stupid questions and still be thought of as equally competent and equally a leader.

For me, that is where I think we would really have moved the needle beyond where we are. For me, when we don’t even need to have this conversation anymore is when I hopefully can put these boots to rest.

Watch the full interview

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