We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion in almost every industry. Here in the public sector, I tend to think we do a better job of living these values, at least on a surface level.
But as soon as you peel back the surface, the homogeneity remains. So let’s talk about it.
Unlike corporate behemoths, the decision-makers in the public sector aren’t all of the exact same demographic. Maybe it’s because we’re explicitly not profit-driven, or maybe we’re just nice people (ha), but we do a fairly good job of our leaders not looking exactly the same.
When I say “looking,” I am of course referring to race and gender, perhaps the most visible categories we can be sorted into. There are other issues at hand (sexuality, disability, age, class, etc.), but when people stand together for a promotional picture, generally agencies are happy just to prove not everyone looks like a junior senator from a Midwestern state.
The problem is that we stop at step one. If we find we have a leadership comprised entirely of white men, we know it looks bad, so we make sure to change this…ever so slightly. This could lead to significantly more men of color, and that’s an improvement! Or it could lead to significantly more women. Also much better! But it’s like the way some folks pig out at dinner after eating a salad for lunch: your work is not done yet.
Would making leadership – and by this, I refer not just to full-time managers, directors and executives, but, perhaps even more importantly, to boards and fundraising as well – look more like the cast of Captain Planet solve every issue in the sector? No.
There are, as mentioned, the other categories that are harder to see. You could have every color of the rainbow leading the organization, but if everyone went to the same three colleges, you might not really be diverse or inclusive.
“Well who cares? It should just be a meritocracy!” That would be nice, and I want to live on that fantasy planet with you, but we’re here, not there.
The fact is, if our leadership has little in common with the communities we serve, we risk creating distance where we should be generating warmth and trust.
Some complain that there just aren’t enough skilled or experienced leaders who aren’t from certain demographics, and so therefore such an effort would necessarily lead to worse results.
My counterargument would be that we should spend much more time finding and nurturing new and emerging leaders from different backgrounds. And we should take great pains to find leaders who don’t necessarily remind us of ourselves, as that is a natural tendency we all fall into when we’re not careful.
Training, mentoring, professional development are all vital and are sorely undervalued in our fields. And the excuses leaders make are just a way of saying they don’t want to take on the risk of someone unproven, a tale as old as time.
I think we lose many potentially dynamic and effective leaders by not spending our time and resources on finding and developing them, or, perhaps even worse, we occasionally elevate someone “different” without having supported them in their ascent, and then, as they flame out, we shake our heads and tell ourselves we won’t make that mistake again.
The mistake actually being made is a constant, stubborn fact of our fields. And it’s up to us to do the work to address it.
Look around at who leads your agency, who makes the impactful decisions. Think about how different the faces and voices are. And if all the voices sound the same, you might really be holding yourself back.