Mark Mathewson, a Black executive in the predominantly white tech sector, has worked at six or seven organizations in his career, and the majority of those places didn’t commit themselves to diversity to the full extent that they could have. They lacked “an appreciation for how leaning into inclusion creates a richer business environment,” Mathewson said. “It’s something that [would] kind of be pushed to the back burner.”
When change isn’t prioritized, there can’t be meaningful advancements or improvements made to the inclusivity of teams. Despite years—or even decades—of D&I initiatives, many U.S. organizations have fallen short of building truly representative workforces. (Case in point: There are only four Black CEOs among Fortune 500 companies today.)
In order for a “good faith effort” to really take place, Mathewson said, workplaces need to go deeper than establishing quick fixes, like diversity training programs (which, on their own, don’t often lead to significant change in an organization’s racial diversity or culture, according to some studies.) Employers need to tackle retention and build an environment where employees feel like they belong—like they can speak up and contribute, and like their needs will truly be met.
Mathewson now works as senior vice president of card technology at Capital One. Through a combination of progressive hiring practices, retention efforts and commitments to inclusion, he’s one of the leaders helping the organization deepen its pledge to creating a welcoming workforce.
“Have we cracked the nut on diversity and inclusion? No,” Mathewson said, noting that there is (and likely always will be) room for improvement. “But I find it encouraging to see the amount of energy and resources that we are applying to solving this problem.”
Striving to welcome more diverse talent
While inclusive hiring isn’t the only thing needed to build a diverse workplace, it’s certainly a crucial first step. And in order for a company to be genuinely inclusive, they need to hire “a diverse set of people at all levels of the organization,” according to Ellen Taaffe, clinical assistant professor of leadership at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management—meaning employees of color won’t be relegated to one department or seniority level.
Capital One, for its part, recruits diverse candidates for director and manager roles, which has had a “powerful impact” on the organization, according to Mathewson. These seasoned hires bring different perspectives to the table when important decisions are being made and they come with well-developed professional networks that can reach a wide array of potential new talent.
Capital One also recruits diverse candidates at the entry level through their student and early talent programs, which tap talent from underrepresented backgrounds for internships and full-time positions. The organization builds relationships with prospective talent through outreach initiatives at schools; to date, Capital One has hosted 200 diversity-specific events with college and professional groups such as the National Society of Black Engineers and Society of Women Engineers.
For the technology side of Capital One, where Mathewson works, these programs can present a partial solution to the stark lack of inclusion and representation in the industry, which has long failed to hire racially diverse candidates (67% of tech companies are made up of less than 5% of Black employees, for instance).
“What we’ve found is that active programs early in a student’s career can influence both how excited they are to stay in the tech field, as well as how they think about their teams, the work they produce and the companies they work for,” he added.
Still, if an employee feels overlooked in the office, then they probably won’t stay, no matter how motivated the organization was to recruit them. More than one in three Black employees intend to leave their current jobs because of prejudice and microaggressions and only 44% of Black women feel comfortable speaking up at work. It’s crucial that employees of diverse backgrounds are not only welcomed into the organization, but also invited into “the right rooms, where their voice matters and they’re listened to,” said Taaffe.
After all, if a Black engineer has “insight about how people in their community view digital banking, for instance, yet they don’t feel comfortable speaking up, then [that’s] a great perspective right there in the room that you don’t actually get,” Mathewson said.
To ensure that employees of color are given the opportunity to speak up and feel heard, Capital One leaders are encouraged to seek out opinions from a greater number and diversity of workers, according to Mathewson. Thanks to this, employees are free to focus on the work itself, according to Taaffe. “When you feel accepted and seen for who you really are, you can be more engaged in your work.”
Mike Garcia, who is Hispanic, experienced diversity initiatives at previous jobs that felt like side projects or “cultural clubs.” Hispanic employees would be asked to help translate materials, for example, or “be given money to host some sort of event, but otherwise, we wouldn’t get asked for much,” Garcia said. Now, with Garcia working alongside Mathewson, as managing vice president of technology for Capital One, he feels like he’s playing an important role in shaping the future of the organization.
“If you’re in the room with the CEO, he is getting your perspective. And that permeates the whole company,” Garcia said.
A generational push toward greater workplace diversity
Diversity at organizations is also being nudged forward by the younger generation of workers—83% of Gen Z candidates strongly consider a company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion when choosing a workplace, for instance. And because millennials and members of Gen Z “have grown up with more diversity around them,” they’re likely to take a stand when their peers aren’t being included, Taaffe said.
They may also come to work equipped with a more nuanced understanding of identity, according to Katina Sawyer, an assistant professor of management at the George Washington University School of Business. Her research has explored how people’s layered identities, a concept known as intersectionality, factor into their experiences at work. For instance, Sawyer said, a company might be working toward greater inclusion for women but neglecting “the specific needs of Black women or Black lesbian women,” who face specific forms of oppression that may come out in the workplace.
Sawyer noted that organizations should be looking more closely at data around layered identities, such as whether Black women employees are advancing up the ladder or being paid as much as white women employees. This is happening inside organizations like Capital One, where employee demographic data is readily accessible in a way that “has been unparalleled” compared to Garcia’s previous employers, he said. As a result, he feels better equipped to help address the lack of Hispanics in tech—which is especially critical, given that the U.S. Hispanic population is projected to nearly double over the next four decades.
“If we do not add that talent, we’re already behind the eight ball,” Garcia said.
The renewed commitment to inclusion among U.S. companies is promising and points to the possibility of real change. But it’s critical that organizations build up their diversity policies and programs with the long term in mind, so they can drive meaningful change and lasting impact well into the future—something that employees will be expecting of them for quite some time to come.
“There’s a greater awareness that [inclusion] is a possibility,” Sawyer said. “And that leads to a greater expectation that companies are going to do something about it.”