Politics

The practical arguments for workplace diversity

New York is at the forefront of the movement to diversify the workplace. But while the benefits of greater diversity have been widely recognized, actually getting there is another challenge entirely. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio has been accused of underrepresentation of Latinos in his administration, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has faced criticism for hiring relatively few women to top positions and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has raised concerns about the declining number of women in the City Council.

Yet officials say they are taking steps to boost diversity, in both the public sector and the private sector.

Maya Wiley, the counsel to the mayor, said that the de Blasio administration has a senior leadership team that is 60 percent female and 37 percent people of color. 

"That shouldn't be historic, but unfortunately it is," Wiley said during keynote remarks at City & State's On Diversity conference. "And it's not enough."

Carra Wallace, chief diversity officer for New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, said during a panel discussion at the conference that her boss “doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk."

Beyond increasing the number of women and minorities in Stringer’s office, Wallace said their team is using the power of the city’s pension funds to sway large, private companies to diversify and create better work-life balances for both men and women, especially at the executive level.

“Less than 5 percent (of women and minorities) make it to the top … so we’re saying look, if we own 3 percent of a company for three years, then we should have the ability to nominate 25 percent of the boards of directors,” Wallace said. “(So far) we’ve seen votes go in our favor close to 75 percent of the time. It’s really starting to make headway and people are starting to get it that you need the independence of board directors, you need diversity.”

The future of diversity in big business largely rests on what the next generation of leaders does, however. According to Charissa Fernandez, executive director of Teach for America, the biggest challenge may be including young men of color.

“We have actually struggled to bring men into the teaching force, and particularly men of color,” Fernandez said. “In our schools we need to ensure that what we’re doing is both providing role models for students … as well as giving them the opportunity to engage with people from different backgrounds than their own.”

As pathways that have traditionally been used to increase diversity, like affirmative action, are dealt blows from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, some are turning to more pragmatic arguments.

R. Fenimore Fisher, chief diversity and EEO officer for New York City’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services, said diverse workplaces allow for a wider range of viewpoints and, in the end, better decision making.

“Doing the same thing over and over again with the exact same people and expecting better results is the definition of insanity,” Fisher said. “The business and moral argument for inclusion and diversity are clear and evident.”

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