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Can Diversity Officers Actually Help Diversify Companies' Staff?


As the U.S. continues its national reckoning with racism, companies everywhere are making public pledges. They're often saying, we need to diversify our staff. So they hire chief diversity officers. These are people put in charge of resolving divisions or inequities around race and gender. General Electric and Zoom Video Communications just hired new chief diversity officers. Facebook and State Farm Insurance just promoted theirs. New diversity officers often come in with lots of enthusiasm and hope, but then they often leave their posts early, disillusioned, without having changed much for their institutions. That is what Pamela Newkirk has often seen. She's a professor of journalism at NYU and author of the book called "Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise Of A Billion-Dollar Business."


PAMELA NEWKIRK: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So one large point that you have made is that, very often, diversity officers simply aren't set up to succeed when they come into their jobs. Tell us what you mean by that.

NEWKIRK: Well, they're often marginalized. They get a nice fancy title, and they're well-paid. And they get, you know, an office and a staff, but they're usually not really folded in to the main of the organization. And that's why there's a really high turnover of these people. So they're treated more like public relations people than they are as executives who are there to actually change the climate and to hire more people of color.

CHANG: And what does changing the climate mean? Like, what are the things that you see these officers getting set up to do? And is it confusing sometimes?

NEWKIRK: Well, I think it differs from place to place. Facebook hired a very high-profile diversity - chief diversity officer and recently - I think last week - presented yet another disappointing report where the percentage of African Americans had barely changed. Just about every Fortune 500 company has a chief diversity officer. And yet year after year, what we see in their own diversity reports is that the needle has barely moved.

CHANG: How would you restructure the job or set up the job differently in order for these diversity officers to succeed? I mean, are there examples that you have seen where they have succeeded at certain companies?

NEWKIRK: Well, the most high-profile example that I cite in "Diversity, Inc." is Coca-Cola, which after a landmark discrimination lawsuit settlement, what they had to do is actually look at the metrics in the company, look at where people were radically underrepresented. They had to look at salaries to make sure there was equity in pay. They looked at promotions, opportunities, and they looked at this across racial and gender lines. And over five years, they were able to make great improvements in those numbers, particularly for African Americans, Latinos and Asians.

CHANG: Are you seeing companies setting up diversity officers any differently so they are better equipped to succeed?

NEWKIRK: I don't. The inclination has been to just hire a chief diversity officer no matter what their background is basically and then to sort of walk away and not really fold them into the main of, you know, the institution. There was a Russell Reynolds survey of Fortune 500 chief diversity officers that found that only 35% even had access to the metrics within the institutions where they worked, and many felt they didn't have the resources or the support. So unless these institutions change the way they approach chief diversity officers, we're going to see pretty much the same thing moving forward.

CHANG: Pamela Newkirk is a journalism professor at New York University. She is also author of the book "Diversity, Inc."

Thank you very much for joining us today.

NEWKIRK: Thank you. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.