Just Do It … More Than Once
Angie Morgan, April 8, 2018
Nike recently announced its focus on promoting women and people of color. Hear from Angie as she shares her perspective on being the “token female” in many situations, and what guidance she’d give Nike as they intentionally grow the diversity of their workforce.
I’ve sat in the diversity chair many times, and it’s not awesome.
As a young Marine officer, I was frequently selected to play the token female role when VIPs came to base. The base general would invite me to deliver the installation “brief,” where I’d stand in front of congressional leaders, visiting foreign military officers, and whoever else stopped on by, and talk about our operations while sending the not-so-subtle signal that stated, “Yes, gentlemen, we have women here in our Corps and they’re doing just fine.”
When I transitioned out of the Marines to work in pharmaceutical sales, there were many times I was asked specifically to visit certain physicians because they had a preference for female representatives.
Even later in my career, there would be a few instances where I’d serve on boards and committees where it was clear that the reason I was asked to engage was that they needed to create better optics for their board – they needed a woman, and that woman was, clearly, me.
Now, I don’t begrudge anyone who’s put me in any of these positions. I don’t feel like I was taken advantage of or that I was exploited. What I can recall from all of those experiences was that when I was in them, I felt incredibly lonely.
We’ve heard before it’s lonely at the top. Well, it’s also incredibly lonely when you’re the sole woman or person of color asked to sit in a sea of white men to play a part or to satisfy an implicit agenda.
As an example, a previous board I served on was comprised of older, Caucasian, and very wealthy men. After our meetings, we’d retreat to the bar where conversations would focus on jets, golf vacations, scotch, second homes, and second wives. I would listen and patiently wait to catch an opening where I could contribute. And I’d wait. Their lives were very dissimilar to mine – a relatively young entrepreneur with elementary-aged kids whose husband was an active duty Marine. (Hint: we weren’t living in the lap of luxury.) I felt completely out of place and, inevitably, after an hour I’d retreat back to my hotel room wondering what I was doing with this group, asking why I was choosing to spend my discretionary time on this nonprofit board when it left me feeling this way. I knew I had value to add, but I also questioned greatly whether this group appreciated my value … especially when we had nothing in common. After I served my term, I resigned. It didn’t feel worth the time tradeoff. I soon found another organization where I could add value (with a lot more ease).
So, when I heard recently Nike’s Chief Human Resources Officer announce they needed to accelerate the hiring and promotion of women and people of color into more senior roles, my first thought was great! My second thought was to make sure to not just do it once, do it multiple times, so that diversity doesn’t feel awkward or uncomfortable for women and minorities, and – most importantly – lonely for this group. Because if it does, diverse talent won’t stay – they’ll go to the places where they feel they can thrive.
As a consultant, I’ve worked in businesses where diversity feels easy. Recently, I was facilitating a leadership retreat for an oilfield services company, where I was the only woman in the room, and the group was comprised of Iraqis, Egyptians, Russians, and North and South Americans. It was possibly the most diverse crowd I’ve ever been in front of. More importantly, it wasn’t uncomfortable. We were different in many ways imaginable, and it worked. Having consulted with this business for many years, I can say with certainty that a decade ago diversity (or lack thereof) was a huge problem. They addressed it by targeting senior leadership roles and putting extremely competent, capable, and diverse talent in them (even if that meant reaching deep into the organization and having these individuals leap a few promotions into their spot). They did a lot of training. Ultimately, their strategy worked, and I was able to experience the fruits of their labor.
Growing diverse workforces is undoubtedly hard work, but worthwhile. Far beyond the feel-good side of it and the optics, diversity makes good economic sense. To tackle the loneliness issue, it’s important to note that one woman or person of color at the top doesn’t allow businesses to reap the economic benefits of a more diverse senior leadership team.
Catalyst Organization has done research on this and the magic number happens to be three – in their study, they found that having three or more women on corporate boards significantly enhanced the performance of Fortune 500 businesses as compared to those that were less diverse. I’m sure if you extrapolate this example to senior leadership teams, and other critical managerial levels, the benefits of diversity will also be found.
Bottom line: Tokenism doesn’t work. Inclusivity, with strong intentions and a strategy, does. So, good luck, Nike, on your journey. May this lead you to a place where the best talent contributes to your business for years to come.