Diversity Town Hall 2021: Deborah Levine – ADR Editor

Diversity Town Hall DEI OVERVIEW  BizUTC

Editor’s Note: This was the introductory presentation at the 2021 Diversity Town Hall in partnership with the Gary  W. Rollins College of Business /U. of TN at  Chattanooga (Moderator Dr. Gail Dawson) and the American Diversity Report. 

CLICK to hear presentation


I appreciate both the eagerness and anxiety about the future of the diverse workplace and I’m often asked to predict what that future will look like. Predicting the future requires looking at the past – at the history of the diversity field and how it developed. I’ll get personal here and go back to New York City 40 years ago. I had just graduated college with a degree in anthropology based on cultural structuralism along with the science of storytelling. I was excited about getting a job, but was considered esoteric and irrelevant. And female. No one would hire me. Still hopeful, I went to an employment agency in Manhattan. As soon as I walked in the door, the office manager insisted that I sit at the all-women’s table and take a typing test. I said no and moved to sit at the all-men’s table where they were interviewed for executive positions. The manager said no. I insisted, he physically blocked me. I insisted again, he threatened to call the police.

There was no interest in diversity at the time and I finally became a Gal Friday, a popular term back in the day for an assistant secretary who made the coffee. Like many women in my position, I eventually opted for entrepreneurship and created my own dance company. When pregnancy halted my performing, I went to graduate school and designed an urban planning masters degree focusing on the arts and economic development. When my internship boss refused to hire me, saying that I was too pretty and he couldn’t keep his hands off me, I resorted to using my family’s contacts, a networking ploy that I’d hoped to avoid.

Eventually, I was offered a job that no one else would touch with a ten foot pole, still a common hiring opportunity for women who get to fix what others have broken. I became the director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee in Chicago and coordinator of the National Workshop on Christian-Jewish Relations. The term “Religious Diversity” did not yet exist, but the experience shaped my perspective of diversity as part of a deeply held belief system. It would be decades before the term “thought diversity” replaced “belief systems,” largely influenced by new internet technology that broadened our world view. Diversity and technology have often evolved together and I suspect that it was no coincidence that I was made the office IT manager along with its interreligious expert.

Advances in technology resulted in new local-global connections as companies competed for diverse markets and suppliers. Diversity became formalized into company policies citing the traditional categories of diversity including race, ethnicity, and gender. There was pressure to recruit a more diverse workforce, but efforts were often more aspirational than action-oriented. Recruitment and promotion continued to favor those who looked and sounded like the status quo.

There was a monumental change when 9/11 happened. The tumultuous times and our anxiety motivated interaction across cultural boundaries for safety, security, or empowerment. Networking took on new possibilities and this is when I created the Chattanooga Women’s Council on Diversity. The Council brought diverse groups together to build connections, collaborate, and create a model for making a difference.

We came to look more closely at our communication styles and turned to stories to better share and listen. Stories have been a mode of human communication and connection since forever. The science of storytelling, a major feature of my Harvard cultural anthropology studies, became the first step in my invention of the Matrix Model Management System. Our stories motivated us to engage in a manner that today would be called, Inclusion.

Building a global and inclusive mindset was crucial as Chattanooga evolved into an industrial hub, especially with the upcoming presence of the Volkswagen plant. The Council morphed into a class where participants from government agencies, corporations, nonprofits and colleges came together to create the process needed to transform our city and region. We saw the discussion turn to terms like global leadership, cross-cultural, intercultural and cultural competence.

While storytelling was the first step in the Matrix System, it was part of a sequential process. The 2nd matrix in the System dealt with an issue that has become increasingly vital in the workplace: emotional intelligence. Acknowledging how deeply our differences are embedded within us, I looked to neuroscience for a system that would not only inspire and instruct, but also to create a common language. Using the emotion metrics and conflict levels that I designed, we aimed for collaborative and innovative teams. To bring action into the process, the 3rd and 4th matrices dealt with decision making and then planning.

But as diligently as we worked on Diversity, it was evident that more was needed for diverse teams to evolve and excel. The phrase “Diversity and Inclusion” became popular and D&I efforts expanded to include internships and mentoring. Employee Resource Groups or ERGs developed to give a voice and sense of community to diverse groups. In addition, many companies initiated multi-cultural events where  diverse groups could share food and other cultural traditions. And there was a renewed look at goals regarding recruitment, hiring, and promotions.

Yet leadership often fell short of D&I goals. This was particularly true of the high-levels of leadership where diversity was still minimal and women were frequently absent altogether. The public outcry against companies with no women board members gained steam with the #MeToo movement. And in 2018, California became the first state to mandate gender diversity in boardrooms with the passage of a bill called SB 826. The measure, requires publicly traded companies based there to have at least one female board director — or face a $100,000 fine.

As welcome as this was, the term “tokenism” came to mind. Research showed that a minimum of 3 women per corporate board is needed. And research on nonprofit boards shows that 30% female is optimal for them to have a voice. Fortunately, as individual-based terms like “imposter syndrome” gave way to society-based terms like structuralism, the S&P 500 and Fortune 500 gradually diversified. On average, boards today have 2.8 woman directors, compared with 1.7 a decade ago. In 2019, women accounted for almost half (46%) of new board directors in the S&P 500.

However, women of color were only 10% of those new directors. On Fortune 500 boards, less than a quarter are women and less than 5% are women of color. Today’s emphasis on racial issues if forcing us to be more mindful and proactive regarding diversity among decision makers. The term “Equity” was added to Diversity and Inclusion to signify attempts to address this.

Meanwhile, COVID forced us to be more personal in our work relationships a s we became more physically distant. The term “empathy” took the spotlight and the term “Belonging” was added to Diversity and Inclusion and Equity to underscore the need to engage on a personal level.

The challenges of a diverse workplace are not new, but the awareness of the complexity of achieving diversity-related goals became increasingly obvious. For example, the traditional diversity category of gender expanded to include gender identity.  And we established what we call “Intersectionality” which acknowledges the multiple diversity categories within each of us.

The growing complexity led to a deep dive into communication styles and how they translate across diverse cultures. We needed to know more about our cultures to avoid alienating each other, adding weight to the term “cultural competence”. One of the byproducts of cultural competence was an increased understanding that we not only have different backgrounds and traditions, we also think and believe differently.

Understanding the extent of our thought diversity led to a new emphasis on neuroscience. The terms “Unconscious Bias” and “Implicit Bias” emphasize how deeply embedded are the multiple assumptions we make about each other. Adapting to a changing environment, the Matrix Model Management System became an Un-Bias guide workbook that helps process Big Data of Diversity, maximize storytelling skills and boost the emotional intelligence needed in the current high anxiety COVID world.

The Un-Bias guide also outlines the common mis-use of cultural expressions like idioms, popular icons, movies, and music, to name just a few. The goal is to avoid microaggressions, a new term for assumptions, biases and culture clashes that offend and alienate.

The microaggression term is also a response to our growing sense of urgency which can translate into a need for quick fixes. But we have learned that quick fixes don’t necessarily result in the sustainable strategies needed to navigate tumultuous times. As we deal with societal changes regarding issues of race and color, shifts in employment particularly of women, and a growing divisiveness that has led to an increase in hate-related groups and rhetoric, successful DEI strategies need to involve both businesses and community efforts. Mentorships, scholarships, training, forums, and cultural exchanges are more important now than ever.

Online technology increasingly highlights our challenges and magnifies are differences. The divisiveness can destroy teams and must be counteracted. Fortunately, even as our divisiveness grows, so does our desire for people to bring their entire selves to the workplace. The term “authentic” has become a mainstay in attempts to do so. Authentic communication through stories combined with emotional Intelligence in our interactions has become front and center in leadership development, corporate policies, team training, and our joint business and community projects.

We see how the terminology has changed over the decades, but the goals of diversity have remained steadfast. To meet these goals today, there needs to be a highly energized approach. This is especially true as new generations enter the workforce. They have a passion for “making a difference” and DEI must be actionable and results-oriented.

If we are going to make a difference, we need to be constantly learning. Ours is a quickly changing world, so diversity strategies must adapt accordingly. We will need to continually re-examine our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs and evaluate their effectiveness and sustainability. Our connections to community will need to be a constant focus of our DEI work as we educate, recruit, retain and promote a diverse workforce, as well as support diverse vendors and engage diverse markets.

Ongoing learning is central to the cultural competence that allows that engagement, but a major element of that competence has received little attention. That element is Religious Diversity. Many organizations avoid any discussion of religion, or spirituality. Yet our belief systems underly much of who we are and how we structure our daily lives. This is a constant in the human experience and, it has intensified with the COVID reality.

That’s why I designed Quick Reference Religious Diversity Cards and included them in a book that I produced with my colleagues called, Religious Diversity at Work. Our goal is not only to address micro-aggressions, but to demonstrate what’s now called “allyship”. Allies show empathy by actions that can be as simple as avoiding scheduling conflicts and respecting dietary restrictions.

You may not be 100% correct, but your efforts demonstrate that you care, as do questions when you’re unsure and apologies when you make mistakes. This interpersonal element of DEI is invaluable and always has been. Don’t be afraid of being esoteric or irrelevant. Instead, consider yourself as a futurist, another popular term today.

Having said that, we must acknowledge that the interpersonal element of DEI cannot be effective without a sophisticated approach to company policies. Those policies must reflect both the legal and interpersonal elements of DEI and be in writing with easy access. COVID has forced workplaces to change in so many ways and continues to do so. Those policies must also change and reflect new ways of diversifying the workforce. Yes, these times seem chaotic, but chaos theory teaches us that the most creative place in the universe is at the edge of chaos. Let’s take advantage of that and get creative together.

Many thanks to our moderator, DR. GAIL DAWSON and to our other panelists whose transcripts are just a CLICK away::

The  Diversity Town Hall is also the October Black-Jewish Dialogue in partnership with: American Diversity Report, Chattanooga News Chronicle, Mizpah Congregation, Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda (C.U.R.B. )


2 thoughts on “Diversity Town Hall 2021: Deborah Levine – ADR Editor”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *